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The Czech public voted out their prime minister. Actually getting rid of him may be harder.

The covid response — and a series of scandals — tipped the race against the billionaire populist

- October 12, 2021

Last week’s elections may have been the end of an era in the Czech Republic. A populist incumbent billionaire prime minister was defeated, and moderate center-right parties have a clear parliamentary majority, but the handover of power may be stretched out by a president who is doing everything he can to help the outgoing government parties. Here is what happened, and what comes next.

A small swing had big consequences

Czech voting patterns changed only by a few percentage points in last weekend’s election. That was still enough to oust Prime Minister Andrej Babis, the billionaire-turned-politician who founded the ANO (“Yes”) party, which he keeps under tight personal control. Babis’s party came in second behind a center-right alliance of parties called SPOLU (“Together”), headed by Petr Fiala.

SPOLU has agreed to form a government coalition with another electoral alliance, called PirSTAN, consisting of the Pirate Party and a party of local mayors, which came in third. The far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) came fourth, while the traditional left-wing parties — Social Democrats and Communists — both fell below the 5 percent threshold needed to hold seats in parliament.

SPOLU and PirSTAN won by focusing on government scandals

SPOLU and PirSTAN faced a formidable opponent in Babis. He owns Agrofert, one of the country’s largest companies, which in turn owns multiple daily newspapers, magazines, Internet portals and TV and radio stations, all of which heap praise on his government — and criticize political opponents.

But Babis has faced a succession of scandals. His business empire has profited from government subsidies, creating potential conflicts of interest. National regulators and the European Union have investigated how public contracts have been handed out.

In Prague, protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Andrej Babis

Babis came to power in 2017 promising that he would “manage the state as a firm,” but the Czech covid-19 response was chaotic, and the country has one of the world’s highest covid death rates. And last-minute revelations in the leaked Pandora Papers that Babis had used offshore companies to acquire luxury real estate in France may have influenced voters.

SPOLU emphasized leadership, while ANO focused on giveaways

The opposition turned the election into an informal referendum on Babis’s authoritarian style of governing and his personal financial scandals. Fiala of SPOLU presented himself in debates as a calm and rational politician who could stand above the fray. After trying to attack Babis’s self-interested political and economic interventions, SPOLU found success in portraying rising prices as proof of ANO’s incompetence.

Ivan Bartos, leader of the Pirates party, fared worse. Not only did the Pirates lose their early campaign lead in the polls, but voters for the Mayors party were far more willing to specify their favorite candidates on the party ballot. Under the country’s party-list electoral system, that helped the Mayors party win eight times as many members of parliament as its more senior alliance partner.

Babis campaigned on his generosity to the public — he increased the state pension significantly in a country where about 1 in 4 voters is a pensioner. He also drew a sharp divide between friends (authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom he hosted), and enemies (immigrants and European Union institutions). And his campaign reportedly used disinformation against the two opposition alliances, claiming, for example, that the Pirates would force Czechs to give away their treasured weekend cottages to migrants, enforce car-sharing and ban dairy ice cream. These attacks may just have nudged possible PirSTAN voters to SPOLU instead.

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Babis survived — but his left-wing coalition partners lost support

ANO’s vote share was only 2.5 percent lower than in 2017. However, Babis’s party may have protected itself by stealing voters from its allies. Both the Czech Social Democrats (ANO’s coalition partner) and the Communists (who indirectly supported the Babis government) lost all their seats in parliament. Even the far-right SPD lost support. Since Babis needed at least one of these parties to form a coalition, his apparent success in attracting their supporters may have cost him the prime minister’s office.

The Czech parliament is now divided along new lines. On one side stands a diverse but relatively moderate center-right bloc of long-standing parties with sizeable memberships. On the other side are the new, ideologically diffuse parties such as ANO and SPD that are dominated by leaders with strong commercial orientations. These parties relied on an aging rural voter base and increased public spending to maintain support — and also hyped voter fears about economic instability, E.U. overreach and unchecked immigration.

The celebrity entrepreneurs-turned-politicians (SPD’s leader gained prominence on the Czech version of the reality TV show “Shark Tank”) reinforces the resemblance to recent U.S. elections. Unlike Donald Trump, however, Babis didn’t falsely proclaim that he won the election. He conceded his defeat and congratulated Fiala on his electoral victory.

Forming a new government will be complicated

In theory, it should be straightforward to form a new government. The party with the most votes traditionally gets the first chance to form a government. That should be SPOLU, which has promised to form a government with PirSTAN, relying on a combined 108 seats in parliament’s 200-seat lower house. That government would have five distinct parties, ranging from religious Christian Democrats to the libertarian Pirates.

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However, the power to appoint a prime minister designate belongs to President Milos Zeman, a close ally of Babis. Zeman has a track record of exploiting the limits of his constitutional prerogatives. Following the 2017 elections, he engineered a workaround that allowed Babis to serve as prime minister of a caretaker government without a parliamentary vote for a half-year, until ANO succeeded in piecing together a coalition.

This time, the election results are quite clear. Any repeat of this maneuver would look like a deliberate effort to ignore the will of the voters. However, Zeman has little to lose, and his deteriorating health may justify further delays — after a meeting with Babis, he headed to Prague’s military hospital, and is reportedly in intensive care. It will likely be a little while before the Czech Republic has a new government.

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Marek Rybar (@marekrybar) is associate professor of political science at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, where his research focuses on Central European parties and elections.

Kevin Deegan-Krause (@DeeganKrause) is associate professor of political science at Wayne State University in Michigan, where his research focuses on Europe’s newer democracies and newer parties. His latest book, co-written with Timothy Haughton of the University of Birmingham, is “The New Party Challenge: Changing Cycles of Party Birth Death in Central Europe and Beyond” (Oxford University Press, 2020).