Winner Takes It All (Including the Troubles)

Petr Kaniok |

Winning is undoubtedly a good thing and delivers nice feelings. Being a winner is a positive social role as well. But. There is always a ‘but’, particularly in politics. Including elections, the main championship in modern democracy. Here, being a too strong and clear winner can, after the euphoria from the lovely results is gone, lead to troubles and hangover. This is precisely what is happening in Czechia now.

However, let’s talk results first. In my pre-election post, I made two predictions regarding the outcome. First, Mr Babiš and his ANO movement would win. Second, populism and instability would increase their role in Czech politics. Both did indeed come true as the table below suggests. But there is of course more to tell – both in terms of what lies beyond the figures and what these figures mean for the future of the ‘little country in the heart of Europe’.

Result table

Digging into the deeper causes of the election results could be the blueprint of a screenplay for a TV series of, say, nine plus one episodes. The first nine episodes for the successful parties – who managed to pass the 5% threshold and obtained MP seats – and the last one (a bonus!) for the countless losers of the elections. Well, since the scope of a blogpost does not make room for such epic approach, let us focus just on the main plots. There are at least three of such interwoven plots: Babiš, the traditional left & right, and rookies & surprises.

ANOOne clear winner of the elections is Mr. Babiš and his ANO movement. Despite of the opposition’s strong anti-Babiš campaign portraying this billionaire as serious threat to Czech democracy, ANO managed to persuade almost 1/3 of voters that their candidates were really different from ‘traditional politicians’ and can ‘work hard’. It might be true that Mr. Babiš benefitted from broad media support as he happens to be the indirect owner of two major dailies and one major radio station, but in any case the purely negative campaign against him was not effective.

The classic right wing parties are left with mixed feelings. The Civic Democrats, almost in clinic death after the 2013 debacle, recovered pretty well, but still can only dream about those bygone years when the party reached out to over 20% of the electorate. The same ambitions were in recent years expressed both by TOP 09 and the Christian Democrats. Both parties aspired to being the recognized leader of center right, particularly the latter, dreaming about Czech CDU project. These dreams of the past turned into nightmares in 2017, when results put them back in place. Anyway, the destiny of the center right and the conservatives lies in opposition and some form of closer cooperation. The current fragmentation of this camp – including small mayors and independents – does neither make sense, nor promise any bright and better future.

For the traditional left, the elections can be summarized in one word: humiliation. The center-left Social Democrats suffered from all problems one may imagine. To name just a few of them: lack of charismatic leaders, struggles between key party figures, absence of themes and pathetic political marketing. Even though the acting government – by the way, led by Social Democrats! – was in many aspects considered a successful one, the Socialists were unable to sell it and lost all credibility. The Communists, who believed that they would profit from their opposition role, dropped to a record low since the party was founded in 1921. The loss of more than half of their seats as compared to 2013 was caused particularly by the party´s almost explicit resignation on efforts to offer any policy solution. Simple relying on ‘we are the opposition – as we have been since 1989’ did not prove to be enough to attract new supporters. And those who vote for the Communists because of nostalgia feelings are a species that is slowly disappearing for biological reasons. Another issue for the left camp is the enormous run of its traditional voters towards Mr. Babiš and to Mr. Okamura (see below). Hence, if the left wants to survive in Czechia, it has to find new narrative, new issues and new leaders.

Category rookie of the year definitely goes to the ‘Pirates’. The party started on the municipal level a couple of years ago and managed to create a very positive and promising reputation attracting particularly young voters. Even though the origin of their name refers to the IT world (not only in Czechia, by the way) their concerns are much broader focusing in particular on state efficiency and transparency. On the other hand, the Pirates´ positions on some major key policies, as for example foreign affairs or the EU, are unclear.

If the Pirates can be regarded as a quite positive surprise in these elections, the success of Mr. Okamura – a former half-Czech, half-Japanese entrepreneur – and his ‘Freedom and Direct Democracy’ party is clearly the most negative outcome. During the whole campaign, Mr. Okamura promoted the worst of populism, combining xenophobic, anti-Muslim, anti-EU and anti-establishment elements, promising ‘more direct democracy’ or ‘leaving the EU the English way’. All this lifted him and 21 of his puppets – in majority men and women without any politics experience nor discernable skills – to the House of Deputies.

With these plots on the table, how does the second season of the TV series look like? As Mr. Babiš won too little to form a single-party ANO government – and too much to offer the other parties some balanced partnership – talks regarding the new cabinet are not easy and so far led to no outcome. This does not mean that nothing happened. The first tactics of Mr. Babiš was ‘cherry-picking’ by suggesting names from other parties as potential ministers to be included in new ANO cabinet. This subversive attempt did not succeed as these politicians declined the offer unanimously. In a second shot, he targeted respected independent personalities, again without substantial impact. Hence, the most probable scenario now seems the creation of a single-party cabinet, which would include some technocratic experts. Such a cabinet could be tacitly supported either by the Communists or by Mr Okamura’s party, or by both in exchange for some positions in the House of Deputies. The picture should be clearer around Christmas when Mr. Babiš wants to ask for a confidence vote for his team.