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The Czech Republic’s Political Turnaround Isn’t a Liberal Victory

The democratic bloc ousted the populists, but it doesn’t signal a revolution.

By , the director of the Institute of International Relations Prague and a senior lecturer in international politics at Charles University.
Leaders of the Czech democratic bloc deliver a speech after elections in Prague.
Leaders of the Czech democratic bloc deliver a speech after elections in Prague.
Marketa Pekarova (from left), the leader of the TOP 09 party; Petr Fiala, the leader of the Civic Democratic Party; and Marian Jurecka, the leader of the KDU-CSL party, deliver a speech after the Czech parliamentary elections in Prague on Oct. 9. MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images

The Czech Republic experienced two surprising political twists last month. First, the tycoon-turned-Prime Minister Andrej Babis lost the parliamentary elections on Oct. 9, as his party picked up more seats than any other but with no chance to form a coalition. Then, a day after the vote, President Milos Zeman was rushed to the hospital. Although his entourage attempted to keep it a secret, recent reports indicate that he is incapacitated and his prognosis “uncertain.”

Despite the Czech government’s poor management of the coronavirus pandemic and renewed corruption allegations, most polls projected that Babis’s coalition would safely defeat the so-called democratic bloc formed against him. Although Zeman’s poor health was public knowledge, few dared to guess that he would be unfit to perform his duties. In the weeks since, foreign observers have heralded the election result as the comeback of resilient liberals—or the “anti-sleaze parties,” opposed to kleptocracy—amid Central Europe’s turn toward populism in the last decade.

But the question of whether the election signals liberals’ return to power in the region warrants more skepticism. The democratic bloc won only by a hair, and the new government will face the difficult task of managing the pandemic recovery, along with a transition to green energy. Any mistakes will only empower the populists. Moreover, most members of the new coalition are better described as conservative in their political convictions. There is little to suggest a regional pattern of resurgent liberal politics is in the making.

The Czech Republic experienced two surprising political twists last month. First, the tycoon-turned-Prime Minister Andrej Babis lost the parliamentary elections on Oct. 9, as his party picked up more seats than any other but with no chance to form a coalition. Then, a day after the vote, President Milos Zeman was rushed to the hospital. Although his entourage attempted to keep it a secret, recent reports indicate that he is incapacitated and his prognosis “uncertain.”

Despite the Czech government’s poor management of the coronavirus pandemic and renewed corruption allegations, most polls projected that Babis’s coalition would safely defeat the so-called democratic bloc formed against him. Although Zeman’s poor health was public knowledge, few dared to guess that he would be unfit to perform his duties. In the weeks since, foreign observers have heralded the election result as the comeback of resilient liberals—or the “anti-sleaze parties,” opposed to kleptocracy—amid Central Europe’s turn toward populism in the last decade.

But the question of whether the election signals liberals’ return to power in the region warrants more skepticism. The democratic bloc won only by a hair, and the new government will face the difficult task of managing the pandemic recovery, along with a transition to green energy. Any mistakes will only empower the populists. Moreover, most members of the new coalition are better described as conservative in their political convictions. There is little to suggest a regional pattern of resurgent liberal politics is in the making.

The recent developments are good news for those who want the Czech Republic to remain anchored in the rule of law. Babis’s ambition to keep using the Czech state to further his private business interests has been thwarted, and the prime minister is increasingly an outcast in the West. His conflicts of interest have been subject to scrutiny in the European Union, and the Pandora Papers recently revealed that he used shadowy offshore companies to hide his ownership of a French chateau. Babis admired his charismatic Hungarian counterpart, but he is no Viktor Orban: The risk that he would drag the Czech Republic outside the EU’s orbit has been averted.

Meanwhile, Zeman’s poor health will not produce a constitutional crisis. Although he is a veteran statesman, his powers are limited, and constitutional procedures in place will divide them among other actors if needed. With the president incapacitated, Babis will likely hand over power to opposition bloc leader Petr Fiala, a former political science professor, even sooner. That Zeman’s close associates sought to run the show as if nothing was happening while the president was in intensive care will limit their shadowy role in government, even if he can finish his term.

Should Zeman’s health problems lead to his political demise, Russia and China will lose a key political ally and conduit for influence in Central Europe. Despite his limited powers, the president can still shape public opinion and exert political pressure. Zeman, who excels in this realm, has downplayed the risks of growing closer to Moscow and Beijing while championing their investments. After the allied withdrawal from Afghanistan, he also expressed doubt about the continuing relevance of NATO, willfully ignoring the alliance’s core territorial defense mission: defending against potential Russian attack.

However, there is little evidence of a liberal revolution in the making in Central Europe. After all, the democratic bloc didn’t win by a landslide; the election was very close. If two other parties hadn’t narrowly missed the 5 percent threshold to enter the parliament, Babis would stand a decent chance of forming a majority government. His ANO and the Freedom and Direct Democracy party, both populist movements, will serve as the opposition after losing just 3.5 percent of their combined support compared with the 2017 elections.

The new parliamentary majority is more conservative than liberal, and it is not free of ties to foreign populists.

Although the recent election result is good for Czech republicanism, it remains to be seen if it will be good for public policy. The new government must set aside deep-seated ideological beliefs in a small state and limited public spending to adequately manage recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. Failing that, it may push austerity measures that will depress the economy and increase existing social divides, threatening to put the populists back in power. More than 700,000 people, or 7 percent of the population, have defaulted on their family loans. The decrease in real wages won’t improve the situation for those who feel economically insecure. The populists’ promises of easy fixes will remain an attractive political option.

Ultimately, the simplistic dividing line between populists and liberals, used as a mobilizing device during the election campaign, does not stand up to closer scrutiny. The new parliamentary majority is more conservative than liberal, and it is not free of ties to foreign populists. Babis’s political marriage to Orban may have been one of convenience—his business in Hungary appears to profit from public subsidies. But some members of the current coalition admire the Hungarian and Polish leaders’ values and share their view of the West’s supposed decline caused by progressive politics. The Civic Democratic Party, the future majority coalition partner, sits with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party in the European Parliament. With friends like that, the new government isn’t likely to call out its neighbors over their violations of the rule of law.

Forget convergence between the Czech government and the EU’s core on social issues, as well as security and defense. The government is unlikely to make much progress on LGBTQ rights since the more conservative members of the coalition are strongly opposed. Prejudice against so-called “green madness”—the pursuit of sustainable energy championed by the EU—is common among Czech conservatives. This will need to be shrugged off to manage a green transition without social and political turmoil: The automotive industry, the country’s biggest industrial sector, currently accounts for 9 percent of annual GDP. Finally, skepticism toward the EU’s strategic autonomy in response to shifting geopolitics and uncertainty about the future U.S. role as a security provider in Europe will likely remain staples of Czech security debates.

Finally, one swallow does not make a summer. In Hungary, a diverse coalition of six parties will seek to repeat the Czech opposition’s success and defeat Orban as early as next spring, but their chances are uncertain at best. Poland’s ruling coalition recently lost the parliamentary majority, but Law and Justice’s support base and hold on power remain strong for now. The victory of the Czech Republic’s democratic bloc may raise hope among the Hungarian or Polish opposition that change is possible, but it doesn’t present a coherent model for such change. Nor will the Czech government have any appetite to encourage it.

The new Czech government is more likely to heed public interest than the former one. With Zeman’s more limited presence and possible premature exit from the political scene, the country’s foreign and security policy will become more predictable. But the opposition bloc’s narrow victory over the populists doesn’t mark a shift in the region. At best, it demonstrates that the decline of liberal democracy built on the rule of law is not inevitable in Central Europe. But social and economic pressures could easily play into the populists’ hands yet again, allowing them to strike back at the next opportunity.

Ondrej Ditrych is the director of the Institute of International Relations Prague and a senior lecturer in international politics at Charles University. He writes about European security and political violence. He is a leading editor of the forthcoming Revolutionaries and Global Politics: War Machines From Bolsheviks to ISIS. Twitter: @oditrych

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