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The Czechs are going to elect a new parliament on the 20th and the 21st of October. Read here why these elections are important for Europe and why the neighbouring state of one of the EU’s richest memberd tends to oppose the EU. Opinion polls in the Czech Republic right before the election all point to a power shift and an anti-European Party, which might turn out to be the biggest winner this time.
Let’s have a quick look at the Czech electoral system: The parliament is based on a bicameral system, made up of the senate, which has 81 seats, and 200 delegates, who represent the legislature and who are directly elected. One third of the Senators are re-elected every second year, so you could almost say that the Czechs are voting practically all the time. The 200 delegates are elected through a system of proportional representation, equivalent to the German “Bundestag” elections. However, the President is elected at a different point in time.
Indeed, today the Czech Republic is a vibrant democracy and even voted to with an impressive majority to join the EU via a referendum in 2003. Today, however, the country is divided on its position vice versa the EU. This is why negative attitudes towards “Brussels” are expressed from time to time and even phrases like “Czexit” have become increasingly commonplace in the public debate. How come? What happened during the past 14 years? One of the main “culprits” is the economic and financial crisis starting in 2008, and its ongoing effects, which continue to inflict substantial suffering on citizens in many Eastern European states. Some opinion polls even trace back the increasing right-wing polarization of Hungary and Poland to this. There is certainly a grain of truth in these assumptions, especially with regard to what many see as an over-accelerated joining process of the so-called Eastern bloc in 2005, also viewed quite critically by many Western EU member states. Nonetheless, it seems incomprehensible how countries that suffered from totalitarian regimes in the past still maintain extreme political voting habits today. This is why many theories on that are circulating right now, the most prominent of which states the loss of a demos. This is the political engagement of the citizens of any country. Its absence paves the way for radicalism. Another idea is that voters prefer to vote for the total opposite of what they perceive as a currently failing government.
To counter this, let’s shed light on the Czech national politics and parties. In fact, only 20% of Czech voters participated in the most recent European elections, thereby demonstrating the lowest voter turnout in the EU. On the one hand, this is rooted in wide-spread Euroscepticism. On the other hand, there’s a generally low attendance at national elections – for instance, only 60% of eligible votes were cast at last national elections. In fact, every third person does not cast a vote at all. Can this lack of political engagement count as sufficient evidence for a missing demos? Yes and No.
It is my impression that many Czechs still carry the weight of their history and that this plays an important role in explaining the Czech voting behaviour. Even though the Czech Republic is currently governed by what is the most right-wing oriented government since the Stalin era, the pro-Russian communists continue to attract roughly 15% of all votes. This polarization has increased rapidly since the last elections, also visible when it comes to the decreasing share of votes of the Social Democrats. Meanwhile, the Communists continue to survive and a new right-wing party is rapidly going up in the polls.
The graph illustrates the development of voting tendencies since 2013, the last time elections were held in the Czech Republic. Then, the Social Democrats (CSSD, in orange) won, 5% ahead of the pro-Russian Communists (KSCM, in dark red). It is important to note that the KSCM never joined the government and mostly acted as the main opposition force in the parliament. However, polls show that the Communist’s share of vote remains quite stable while the CSSD is gradually losing its followers who increasingly tend to vote for the newly emerging ANO-Party, founded in 2013. ANO means YES in Czech, although it rather signifies a NO from a political perspective due to the slogan of the Party that “does not want to be a Party”. The leading candidate, Andrej Babis, is one of the richest men in the Czech Republic and presents himself as an ambitious CEO with the objective to lead the country just like a company. According to him, this means less taxes, more investment in education and research, better care for employees older than 50 and improving the fight against corruption by introducing measures such as making all politician’s salaries public. However, the party also promotes an anti-European and anti-Merkel stance, mainly based on a fear of immigration and refugees and associating the latter with terrorism. It remains to be seen whether or not Babis’ economic ambitions play a more important role than his Eurosceptic ideology in a country where anti-Islamic symbols are overtly displayed, not only on backpacks, but also as Facebook profile pictures. Babis is also currently accused of corruption, having allegedly accepted illegal European subsidies. This might also have an impact on the voting behaviour.
Other parties that might pass the 5% threshold include the TOP 09, the ODS, the CDU, the SPD, and the Pirates. The CDU and the TOP 09 represent the conservative centre, of which only the latter can be described as a pro-European party. The democratic civil party (ODS) had always been the second strongest party next to the CSSD, at least, until ANO entered the stage. This is why the OSD might now struggle to pass the 5% threshold again. Another focal point is the 3% raise in the SPD’s voter share, according to the pollsters. This party is led by a candidate with a Japanese background who opposes refugees and fights for more direct democracy. The Pirate Party might also gain some seats but it is questionable if they manage to pass the threshold, despite their recent successes in local elections all across the Czech Republic.
It seems highly likely that another Eastern European country will be led by a right-wing government as of now. Nonetheless, it is important to note that there is a strong tendency towards a split parliament. Indeed, even if Mr. Babis manages to get 30% of the votes, this does not constitute an outright majority. Thus, a referendum on a possible “Czexit” would be a risky bet for Andrej Babis: Either he could lose his prestige and legitimacy or the country would leave the EU and, thus, suffer major cuts in European subsidies on which the country heavily relies . The Czechs, as well as many other eastern European countries, are still suffering from the remnants of the 2008 economic crisis and, at the same time, depend heavily on the European economy and financial support from the EU. The tendency to move to the right of the political spectrum, a trend which is common to many Eastern European countries, can certainly be traced back to economic concerns, the fear of terrorism (and so on…). Nonetheless, European principles and values are under threat to be replaced by extreme ideologies that clearly oppose the founding principles of the EU itself. As a consequence, the very foundation of stability and legitimacy for a functioning Union of states and governments is getting undermined and is increasingly being threatened.
Comment of the author:
Regarding the fear of terror, I ask myself if reactions like that are precisely what terrorists aim to achieve, as they want to destabilize European power by eroding our principles of liberalism.