A Vote on Values in the Czech Republic
The world community has been focusing on the results of the crucial vote in Germany, which will shape the future of the European continent and—at least to some degree—world politics. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to follow the culmination of the political drama that will shape the future of Germany’s Central European neighbor.
Several factors will influence Czechia’s elections. The voting on October 8-9 will give the opposition the first real chance to challenge and possibly end the political career of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who has been hit by a series of scandals. The Pandora Papers, a global investigation in which Czech journalists took part, is the latest. A total of €14 million invested in French properties via offshore companies once again showed that the wealthy Czech businessman is hardly one of the “ordinary” citizens, as his Twitter account suggests.
The prime minister’s alleged conflicts of interest and the ongoing criminal investigation into the use of EU subsidies for the Stork Nest business center he founded have become such a bone of contention with the European Commission that it has threatened to hold back EU post-pandemic recovery funds.
Czechia’s vote also will direct the value orientation of the country, which has in past years floated between a democratic and liberal tradition and growing illiberal tendencies cultivated by extreme forces as well as Babis’s ANO party. As a vivid example, Babis’s election campaign culminated in a boost from his longtime friend Viktor Orban, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister.
Babis exploited issues such as migration (which most Czechs oppose) and same-sex marriage (which a large majority of Czechs have no problem with) to try to mobilize the more conservative segment of the electorate.
Finally, never before have anti-European and anti-NATO political rhetoric and demands been so openly advocated as by the far-right party of Tomio Okamura and the far-left Communist Party. Both have pushed for a referendum on leaving the EU and NATO. Competition among parties in the extreme camp has intensified, which pushes red lines further.
The situation is even more dire because those parties might be Babis’s only potential allies. None of the current democratic opposition parties would be willing to partner with him if he comes under criminal investigation.
The Czech elections will present a major test for the domestic political landscape as well. Five of the nine parliamentary parties have formed two blocs – moderately right and left of center, respectively—to challenge the ruling elite of Babis and the Social Democrats, who support his government.
The opposition benefits from a recent Constitutional Court ruling to amend the electoral code, which decreases the pressure on coalitions to meet a minimum 10 or 15 percent vote threshold in the case of blocks of two or three parties respectively, which was a heritage of the big power politics of the 1990s.
Perhaps most importantly, the vote will measure Czech society’s maturity since the 1989 Velvet Revolution. It is almost certain that the margin will be slim, and the difference between the ruling parties and the opposition very close. In such a situation, Czech President Milos Zeman will be a major deal-maker.
Well-known for his pro-Russian and pro-Chinese leanings and smart political tactics, the head of the Czech state might demand several key concessions from the future prime minister, for example regarding the tender for a new reactor unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant. Both Russia and China currently are barred from taking part. It also is unclear who will lead the Czech counterintelligence agency BIS or who might be in charge of the general prosecutor’s office.
In any case, Czech civil society and public pressure on the future cabinet will determine the political culture and red lines for post-election decision-making. Only civic activism and strong public engagement will derail any attempts to undermine Czechia’s liberal democratic order and Euro-Atlantic orientation. Let us hope that Czech society has matured enough to be an effective check and balance no matter who is in charge.
Pavel Havlicek is a former Rethink.CEE fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He is a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs in Prague and Russia research coordinator at the MapInfluenCE project. He also is a board member at the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.
This article was originally published by Transitions on October 7, 2021, under the headline “A Vote on Values.”