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In Prague, protesters demand the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš

Why is liberal democracy under threat in the Czech Republic?

- June 25, 2019

On June 23, organizers estimate that more than 250,000 protesters in Prague gathered to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš — and for loosening the control of the ANO party and his company, Agrofert, on the country.

What’s the story behind the largest protest in the Czech Republic since the Velvet Revolution in 1989? Here’s what you need to know.

Protesters claim that Babiš is subverting the independence of the judiciary by appointing a justice minister unlikely to act against him in a fraud case involving the misuse of European Union subsidies designated for small businesses. Separately, a preliminary investigation revealed last month by the European Commission found Babiš in violation of E.U. conflict of interest rules, citing his continued ties with Agrofert. Reportedly, the Czech Republic may have to repay 2 million euros ($2.3 million) in E.U. subsidies awarded to Agrofert.

A civic movement named “One Million Moments for Democracy” organized the protests. While many protesters carried signs criticizing Babiš, others expressed support for civic engagement and liberal values as the bedrocks of Czech democracy, with slogans such as, “What do want for our country? An independent judiciary!” From the podium, movement leaders explained at length why institutions must guarantee equal rights for all citizens and equal treatment before the law.

But the power of the street isn’t likely to translate easily into power in the parliament. While attracting large numbers of protesters, the nonpartisan nature of this movement could also prove a weakness. For the protesters to usher in a substantively new government, they would need to renew and empower opposition political parties. Today these parties are fragmented and discredited — and choosing not to associate with them makes lasting political change unlikely, no matter how many Czechs take to the streets.

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What do we know about Andrej Babiš, oligarch and populist?

The rise of Babiš and his ANO party suggests the immense political power of a well-calibrated populist appeal — when mainstream parties have lost their luster. Political scientists might have predicted that the Czech Republic — with few ethnic minorities, no delusions of regional grandeur, weak nationalism, very weak religiosity, very low unemployment, virtually no refugees and a strong economy — would have resisted the populist wave.

Yet, in the land of Kafka, the ANO movement entered government in 2013 on a populist, anti-corruption platform, despite the fact that ANO serves as a political vehicle for Babiš, a Slovak businessman who made his fortune by manipulating the state and defrauding taxpayers.

Babiš amassed personal power in the economy, in government, in the media and in civil society as an oligarch before creating the ANO party. Babiš paints himself as a skilled technocrat and a martyr, claiming that corrupt mainstream elites have fabricated his legal troubles because they see his honesty and efficiency as a threat.

More than 250,000 people gathered in central Prague on Sunday, June 23, 2019, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his government. Protesters carried the flag of the European Union.  
(Photo courtesy of Milada Anna Vachudova.)
More than 250,000 people gathered in central Prague on Sunday, June 23, 2019, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his government. Protesters carried the flag of the European Union.
(Photo courtesy of Milada Anna Vachudova.)

The Czech political transformation is echoed elsewhere

The ANO party won the October 2017 Czech parliamentary elections with nearly 30 percent of the vote; eight other parties each received only 11 percent or less. In July 2018, Babiš formed a government in cooperation with the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD), which has always been less liberal than most of its E.U. counterparts. This minority government also relies on the external support of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM), giving unreconstructed communists real political power in the Czech Republic for the first time since the fall of communism.

Czech elections have become really volatile. This year was no exception.

The 2017 election results suggest that the Czech Republic is following Hungary and Poland, as political campaigns are won more on identity than on the economy. ANO used the fear of refugees, migrants and Muslims to create a sense of external threat to the Czech way of life. Combined, the parties using similar appeals — ANO, Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) and the Communist Party — received almost 50 percent of the vote.

In January 2018, Czech voters narrowly reelected Miloš Zeman, an openly racist, xenophobic and pro-Russian and anti-Muslim president. Zeman has become a strong supporter of Babiš’s efforts to control state institutions and concentrate power in the hands of ANO.

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Zeman, like Fidesz in Hungary and the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland, has adopted appeals that create “enemies.” As political scientist Erin Jenne argues, these appeals combine “narratives whereby enemies from beyond (migrants, immigrants, ethnic minorities) couple or even conspire with enemies from above (the EU, UN, IMF, ‘global elites,’ or foreign powers) to undermine the nation and the people.” By 2018, Czech public attitudes were on some measures the most anti-Muslim in the E.U., shaped by these political appeals and by popular websites — often with Russian funding — that traffic in disinformation.

What happens now?

Since 1989, the Czech Republic has had a glowing reputation in the West for its liberal and progressive politics — a kind of Berkeley of post-communist Europe — that further analysis suggests has been undeserved. The Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES), which measures the positions of parties, shows that today only one of the five parties in opposition — the weakly institutionalized Pirate Party — takes positions that are strongly cosmopolitan and socially liberal across the board.

It’s unclear for now how the “Million Moments for Democracy” civic movement might reshape the Czech political scene. The five opposition parties have weakly developed positions on strengthening the rule of law, safeguarding institutions that protect the individual, fighting racism and rebuilding an independent media. Longtime, unpopular politicians run some of these parties; others remain institutionally and programmatically fragile.

And the opposition is far from united. Members quarrel and compete with one another — and take different positions on many issues. One of these parties, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), has a long history of opposing the E.U. and now calls for a multispeed E.U. — where the Czech Republic can idle in the slow lane.

Yet as Czech and E.U. flags flood the streets of Prague, it is striking that once again the rules and values of the European Union serve as a focal point for cooperation among pro-democracy groups. In this respect, the Czech Republic is part of a broader European trend. While some citizens and politicians across Europe seem prepared to dissociate the E.U. from liberal democracy, others are reaffirming the E.U.’s power and promise as a liberal and democratic club.

Milada Anna Vachudova is Jean Monnet Chair and an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She studies political competition, European integration and the impact of external actors on domestic political change.

Jan Rovny is an assistant professor of political science at Sciences Po, Paris. He studies party competition, voting and ethnic politics in Europe. @JanRovny