Populism is a double-edged sword; it makes winning elections easier, but it is incredibly difficult to consistently meet the promises made during the campaign without working against the interests of the state. A case in point would be the last six months of the newly-appointed Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis. To be able to eventually become prime minister, he had to flirt with radical supporters who want out of both NATO and the EU though, in the past, he has repeatedly declared that he would like to move towards the transatlantic orientation.

In the Czech Republic, which has been running with an interim government for half a year, a much needed breakthrough appeared  a weekend ago: a governing coalition will be formed made up of the victorious party ANO (78 seats) and the Social Democrats (CSSD, 15). The voting block will be supported by the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KCSD, 15); however, these parties will not put their ministers in the government as previously promised but fill undefined functions in agencies and public companies. The confidence vote will allow the government to approve the 200-person parliament.

Short-lived success

Andrej Babis can take a breath but not for long. Resulting from the campaign, there are two referendums waiting for him, one of which is more dangerous than the other.

The first, an internal party ballot of the Social Democrats confirming the coalition, will take place soon and the results will be announced on June 15. Until then, the CSSD will closely watch the activities of ANO, and no analyst is presently willing to predict the result. If the referendum fails, Czechs will probably have to announce a new election with a likely date in May 2019, in the close vicinity of the European elections. Here, the referendum game starts to get interesting and dangerous.

In future elections, parties will give concessions to more and more extreme parties which are generally in favour of their agenda. The radical leftist KCSD is not the only extreme party in parliament; there is the nationalist Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD), which loudly pronounced their desire to leave the Western structures of NATO and the EU.

Additionally, the most radical, openly-sympathetic Kremlin supporter in geopolitics is President Milos Zeman; the Czech leader in known for touting a barrage of extremist views which have been racist and revisionist and this probably is not the end.

It is from these political centres that the loudest calls for a new referendum law, which would open the door to a future vote on Czexit. To govern, Andrej Babis must rely on the goodwill of KCSD, and this means flirting with the subject of a referendum.

Already at the start, the new law has been on the agenda of the parliament but in the Senate, which is dominated mostly CSSD and the moderate conservatives, who strongly opposed the bill. However, in public debate, this topic is still bouncing back helping the radicals.

The Czechs are critical of the EU – only slightly less than Greeks – and far more than the British (according to. Eurobarometer survey in November 2017). In this light, you can see that even if President Zeman himself declared that he would rather remain in the EU, his supporting the referendum only adds fuel to the fire. This means that both the government’s agreement with the Communists and the potential failure of this administration will give the radicals only additional fuel, and the threat Czexit, sooner or later, will become a permanent part of the political landscape.

From this perspective, the situation is rather dire. The Czech statistical office reported that almost 84% of exports are with the other EU countries. It should also be remembered that the Czech Republic is the second largest trade partner with Poland, behind only Germany. So, neither the entrepreneurs nor the more immediate neighbours would like such a prospect as Czexit.

However, it is the business community which has created the populist push in the country, including the Czech Prime Minister-Elect. Time will tell how durable this movement is and whether support will be guaranteed for longer.

Although on  May 11th, on the day officially announcing the coalition agreement, Babis spoke about the future of the Czech Republic in the European Union to an audience that didn’t need much convincing – students from the University of Economics in Prague. He called for reform, a depoliticisation of the European Commission, an increase of the competences of the EU, a strengthening of the internal market and renounced the introduction of the euro. The effect: the liberal electorate was encouraged to choose the Europe of nations, similar to PiS. It is actually a paradox that weaker nations would argue against the power of the Commission that otherwise balances out the power of stronger member states.

These words do not reach the small pockets of society which are becoming a strong base not only for the populist rivals of Babis but also the enemies of a united Europe. For Poland, this means that our potential, based on the previously-increasing position of Central Europe is being threatened by both the more radical Hungary and also the changes taking place in the Czech Republic.

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published (in Polish) on Dziennik.pl http://www.gazetaprawna.pl/artykuly/1123321,rzad-w-czechach-z-radykalnymi-zwolennikami-wyjscia-z-nato-i-ue.html

Wojciech Przybylski is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad/Insight.

Wojciech Przybylski

Central European Futures

Over the past several years, it has become ever more apparent that the post-Cold War era of democratic reform, socio-economic development and Western integration in Central Europe is coming to an end.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German-Marshall Fund of the U.S..

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