Prague, Czech Republic – The victory in the so-called “democratic bloc” parliamentary alliance over Prime Minister Andrei Babis in the recent Czech election encourages other opposition forces in the hope of producing populist strong men in Europe, according to analysts.
The twin-election coalitions that make up the Democratic bloc-center-right Spolu and the liberal PirStan won 108 of the 200 seats in parliament last week.
This means that although Babi’s ANO party will control 72 seats, the populist billionaire has few options to build a functioning government.
After collaborating during the campaign to bring down Babis and pointing to the premiere’s many financial scandals and, they claim, catastrophic handling of the pandemic, the five democratic bloc parties are already in detailed discussion about forming a government among themselves.
However, the Prime Minister, whose enormous economic and media power and populist policies have helped ANO remain in government for the past eight years, seems to be trying to test their unity.
He will be dependent on the help of his ally, President Milos Zeman, although the head of state’s health is a major issue after he was admitted to intensive care due to an undeclared “chronic condition” on October 10, days after the election ended.
Should the president be too unsuitable to mediate government negotiations, the democratic bloc would have a clear path. But Zeman’s camp says his condition has now stabilized and he is keeping an eye on the situation from his hospital bed in Prague.
Babis claims that just minutes before Zeman disappeared in an ambulance, he had promised to use his constitutional authority to re-appoint the billionaire as prime minister.
It is suspected that the President and the Prime Minister will then probably try to extend the negotiations in the hope of dividing the democratic bloc.
There are plenty of divisions that can be used as the anti-babis glue that kept the unity of the democratic bloc on its course by [though?] the campaign is weakened.
The Civic Democrat Party (ODS), the Eurosceptic and deeply conservative leader of the Spolu faction, has long been seen as a potential target. The potential for it to clash with others in the democratic bloc who are anxious to adopt the euro, adopt the EU’s climate change policy or legalize homosexual marriage is clear.
“These deep divisions were put on hold during the campaign,” said Sean Hanley, associate professor of Central and Eastern European politics at University College London.
Marketa Adamova, leader of Top09, another of Spolus’ parties, admits that the quintet “pulled our strings” in recent months, but insists that the alliance will survive even without the common enemy.
Most analysts expect the same thing; at least until a cabinet is formed.
Is the populist turning water?
One element that helped strengthen solidarity during the campaign was the high-profile support offered to Babis by Viktor Orban.
The praise that the Hungarian Prime Minister and the spiritual leader of Central European illiberal populism paid tribute to the Czech billionaire “scared the living hell out of the opposition camp,” said political scientist Vladimira Dvorakova.
“Orban’s appearance mobilized the democratic vote,” Dvorakova said. “People were worried that Babis wanted to take the Czech Republic in the same direction as Orban has taken Hungary.”
But Babi’s loss is not the only blow to Orban’s dream of creating a regional breeding ground for illiberal populism on 9 October.
On the same day that the Czech billionaire lost his footing, Sebastian Kurz was forced to resign as Austrian Chancellor due to a corruption scandal.
Synchronicity only encouraged claims that Central Europe, freed from the influence of former US President Donald Trump, is now heading in a new direction.
The events “indicate that the populist wave in Eastern and Central Europe is slowing down, halted by the growing unity of opponents and a crisis of confidence following the defeat of the former US president,” wrote Andrew Higgins, head of the New York Times for Eastern and Central Europe.
It has been claimed that the process began 18 months ago when Robert Fico, who had dominated Slovak politics for a decade, was replaced by a coalition of centrist and right-wing parties.
The Democratic bloc’s success in removing Babis is seen as another guide and even “a manual for the defeat of populists and illiberals” according to Jan Rovny, associate professor at Sciences Po in Paris.
It is a plan that is now being studied by the Hungarian opposition, he said.
After a failed attempt to unite before the last election in 2018 resulted in yet another constitutional majority for Orban, six different parties from the left, liberals and even the former far right are organizing to challenge the strongman in a vote next year.
Marton Gyongosi, vice president of Jobbik, a party that says it is no longer right-wing extremist, says, however, that the Hungarian opposition can take some instructions from the Czech election because Orban has anchored itself in a gerrymandered system.
While Babis controls a significant portion of the Czech media, he never gathered enough power to change the electoral or judicial system of his Hungarian counterpart, analysts say.
“But seeing the case of any of Orban’s allies gives hope for cooperation with the Hungarian democratic opposition,” Gyongosi admits.
The embryonic cooperation between Poland’s center-right opposition, which seeks to overthrow Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law & Justice (PiS) party, could benefit more from Czech lessons, Hanley suggested.
“Babis were not defeated by modern liberals like the Pirate Party, who flopped in the election, but by conservative mainstream parties,” he said. “The lesson is that the center-right is the key to defeating populism if it can avoid the temptation to go to the right to compete.”
“The unlikely hero of the Czech Republic is ODS leader Petr Fiala, who allowed his strongly conservative social views and his Euroscepticism to fade into the background to play ‘Captain sensible’ in Czech politics.”
It remains to be seen whether the captain – who most predict will inevitably become prime minister despite efforts by Zeman and Babis – and his cohorts will be able to maintain their unity and help the country recover from its struggle of populism.
The lessons learned from Slovakia, where the ruling coalition continues to falter from crisis to crisis, suggest that once the pressure of power is exhausted, the pressure of power will quickly cause divisions to bubble to the surface.