The Czech elections are on the verge of common sense

Until now no one can give a clear answer as to what the coalition may look like

Vladyslav Kudryk
21 October 2017

President Miloš Zeman’s statement in the Palace of Europe regarding annexation of Crimea, triggered a violent reaction not only in Ukraine but also in the Czech Republic. This statement was condemned both by Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka and Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaorálek. Czech representatives in the European Parliament urged the president to apologize to the Ukrainians. Demonstrators came to the residence of the president in the Prague Castle to say that “The Czech Republic is not Zeman”.

But after the parliamentary elections that took place on Friday and Saturday, this gap between the president on the one hand and society and government on the other may decrease. The main contender for the post of the new prime minister can be characterized as another politician without moral landmarks. His name is Andrej Babiš; a businessman, the second most prosperous person in the Czech Republic, now under investigation because of suspicion of corruption.

However, Babiš, the leader of the ANO 2011, is not the only dangerous populist in this election. He is accompanied by the Communists, traditionally sympathetic to Russia, and the far-right party SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy), which is headed by Tomio Okamura, a Czech of Japanese-Korean origin. Once a migrant, now Okamura is a hard opponent of immigration. The main election slogan of the SPD was “No to Islam, no to Terrorism”, the prominent identification of Muslims with terrorists. These elections are a vivid illustration of the problems of contemporary Czech society and politics. It is important to remember: firstly, the Czech Republic, at the level with Greece, is the most sceptical EU country towards the European Union; and secondly, the Czechs, as shown by sociological studies, is one of those peoples, most inclement to migrants. According to one of them, 74% of Czechs generally have a negative attitude towards immigrants. However, the EU, unlike the “threat from immigrants”, did not become a prominent campaign topic. Not surprisingly, the war in Ukraine and the approach of the Czech government in this matter did not become either.

Another “No” to traditional parties

Whatever the result is, these elections are different for the Czech Republic. “The Czech voters run out of patience about the systemic, old and parliamentary political parties, which absolutely lacked self-reflection,” said Czech Ukrainist and an expert of the think-tank European values (Evropské hodnoty) Lenka Víchová. “Unfortunately, these parties did not understand the signals of voters who have already given the chance to those so-called non-system parties to enter the parliament by their protesting votes several times. This time, the Czech Pirate Party and the SPD of populist Tomio Okamura will certainly pass to the parliament. Of course, traditional parties have deserved it, but these new parties will bring to the parliament not only a ‘new blood’, but also a chaos.”

What does this chaos mean for Ukraine? Obviously, it depends, first of all, on the coalition. But now nobody can say how it will look like. “It’s hard to imagine what a new coalition will be, from whom it will be formed and what can be expected from it at all,” says Víchová. Two days before the elections the fifth part of respondents said that they hadn’t known who they would vote for.

During my recent visit to Prague, I heard the statement of the Respekt weekly reporter Kateřina Šafaříková that Babiš, unlike Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who are driven by an ideology, follows the money. He owns the second largest Czech company – Agrofert holding. Due to suspicion of abuse of EU subsidies, in May Babiš was forced to leave the post of Minister of Finance. However, the ANO has declared its goal to fight corruption. Nothing surprising.

Undoubtedly, part of the Czech voters is worried about the origin of the wealth of Babiš and his family. However, in general, scandals did not affect his ratings. The question is who will form the government with the ANO. There are very few good options. The only truly pro-European and pro-Ukrainian power, the party TOP 09 of the former Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, may not even enter the parliament.

Instead, the popularity of the far-right from the SPD has grown, and the Communists have good ratings. From the point of view of the history of the Czech Republic in the second half of the 20th century, the popularity and even existence of the Communist Party in the country is a paradox. However, the fact is – the most popular and two conspicuous parties criticize sanctions against Russia. They are united by the unacceptability of welcoming migrants as well.

A difficult path to a coalition

So far, the Communist Party and SPD have ruled out the possibility of forming a coalition with the ANO. The same thing Babiš says about Okamura. It’s clear that everything can change soon. The coalition of the ANO with Communists and right-wing radicals would be a shock to the EU, a problem for Ukraine and a test for democracy in the Czech Republic. No wonder the Czechs call it a “coalition of horror”. Fortunately, such a scenario is highly unlikely, according to the correspondent of the international department of the daily Hospodářské noviny Ondřej Soukup. Šafaříková also excluded the possibility of any coalition with the Communists but suggested that ANO and SPD together could be a part of the next government. 

As a possible option, Soukup sees the coalition of the ANO with the ODS and the Civic Democratic Party (KDU-ČSL). According to Soukup, ODS is neither pro-Ukrainian or anti-Ukrainian. “There is a very eurosceptic wing in it, some politicians are sympathetic to Putin,” he adds. A coalition without the ANO is also mathematically possible, but it will be volatile to a fault. There is also the option for which the ANO’s scandalous leader, in order to create a coalition, will remain only an MP. In this case, Soukup assumes that Defense Minister Martin Stropnický could be a new prime minister.

Lenka Víchová suggests that the traditional parliamentary parties, except Communists, are those who stand with pro-Ukrainian rhetoric: “If the party of Andrej Babiš, Communists, SPD and Pirates show the best results at the elections, it will be interesting to see how rhetoric on Ukraine will change. It should be understood that both the Communists and the SPD and, in part, Pirates like to distribute fake news, they are pro-Russian and anti-migrant”.

What the victory of Babiš will change

Andrej Babiš can be comparable not only to Zeman. Because of the conflict between political and business interests, there is a clear parallel with Silvio Berlusconi: Foreign policy once called the Czech politician “Babisconi.”

“If the next government is formed mostly with members of Andrej Babiš ‘s party, that would be, I’m afraid, a different story,” said Kateřina Šafaříková, referring to the possible change in the position on sanctions against Russia. “Andrej Babiš is critical of the sanctions, but not because he has his ideological agenda behind, or because they would be friends with Putin, but because of money. Interestingly enough, he, meaning his company, does not trade much with Russia,” stressed Šafaříková and assumed that this is how Babiš tries to attract those Czech businessmen who lost money because of sanctions.

Later, a lot depends on who gets into the team of the prime minister Babiš. Now one of the most prominent foreign policy figures in his team is the member of the European Parliament Pavel Telička, one of those six who pushed for Zeman to apologize. “He [Pavel Telicka] is very critical of Russia and very much in favor of the continuation of the sanctions. If he has any kind of influence after the elections, Mr. Babiš may change his mind, and we will still support the sanctions,” added the journalist of Respekt.

It is important that Babiš’s agricultural company is the biggest single consumer EU of the funds in the Czech Republic. From this position, it is unlikely that Babiš will risk his own money for the sake of a gamble in the Russian direction.

“It seems to me that the foreign policy of the Czech Republic, including in relation to Ukraine, will not change after Babiš becomes the prime minister,” says Ondřej Soukup. “The foreign policy itself, apparently, for him is not interesting, perhaps with the exception of the EU grants for his agroholding. In general, politically there is a consensus that the unity of EU on Russia must be kept. As a matter of fact, therefore President Zeman is different with his pro-Russian position. I suspect that in part he does it deliberately, simply to polarize Czech society”, he explained.

Lenka Víchová points out that in early 2018, presidential elections will take place: “If Miloš Zeman wins, then I think the Czech Republic, after Hungary and Poland, politically will try to reach the bottom. If a less pro-Russian candidate wins, at least there will be some balance. Many hope Zeman would lose, but I personally think that he has not yet shown all trump cards that he has”.

Some thoughts in this article were heard during a study trip for journalists to the Visegrad Four countries. The project “Communicating Europe — Making the EU Understandable” was organized by the New Europe Center (Kyiv) and the Hungarian Center for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID) with the support of the International Visegrad Fund. Res Publica Foundation is a partner of the project.

Vladyslav Kudryk is a correspondent for Ukrainian online-media Apostrophe