Czech elections offer Europe an anti-populist boost

Prague, Czech Republic – The victory of the parliamentary alliance of the so-called “democratic bloc” over Prime Minister Andrej Babis in the recent Czech elections offers encouragement to other opposition forces hoping to surpass the populist strongmen in Europe, according to analysts.

The twin electoral coalitions that make up the democratic bloc, the center-right Spolu and the liberal PirStan, won 108 of the 200 seats in parliament last week.

It means that although Babis’ ANO party will control 72 seats, the populist billionaire has few options to build a functioning government.

Having cooperated during the campaign to overthrow Babis, pointing to the prime minister’s numerous financial scandals and, they allege, the disastrous management of the pandemic, the five parties of the democratic bloc are already in a detailed discussion about forming a government among themselves.

However, the prime minister, whose enormous economic and media power and populist policies have helped keep ANO in government for the past eight years, seems willing to try to put his unity to the test.

He will depend on the help of his ally, President Milos Zeman, although the health of the head of state is an important issue after he was rushed to intensive care due to an undeclared “chronic condition” on October 10, days later. for the elections to end.

If the president were not in a position to mediate in government negotiations, the democratic bloc would have a clear path. However, Zeman’s camp says his condition has stabilized and he is closely monitoring the situation from his bed in the Prague hospital.

Babis claims that just minutes before Zeman was taken away in an ambulance, he had promised to use his constitutional authority to reappoint the billionaire as prime minister.

It is suspected that the president and prime minister will likely try to prolong the negotiations in the hope of dividing the democratic bloc.

There are many divisions that could be exploited such as the anti-Babis glue that kept the unity of the democratic bloc going. through [though?] the campaign weakens.

The Civic Democratic 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 interested in adopting the euro, embracing the EU’s climate change policies or legalizing same-sex marriage is clear.

“These deep divisions were frozen 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 Spolu’s parties, admits that the quintet “pulled our fists” in recent months, but insists that the alliance will persist even without the common enemy.

Most analysts also expect the same; at least until a cabinet is formed.

Turning the populist tide?

One element that helped cement solidarity during the campaign was the high-profile support offered to Babis by Viktor Orban.

The praise that the Hungarian prime minister, and aspiring spiritual leader of illiberal populism in Central Europe, lavished on the Czech billionaire “greatly scared the opposition camp,” said political scientist Vladimira Dvorakova.

“The appearance of Orban mobilized the vote of the democratic bloc,” said Dvorakova. “People were alarmed that Babis wanted to take the Czech Republic in the same direction that Orban has taken Hungary.”

But the loss of Babis is not the only blow to Orban’s dream of creating a regional hotbed of illiberal populism on October 9.

On the same day that the Czech billionaire lost his balance, Sebastian Kurz was forced to resign as Austrian chancellor over a corruption scandal.

The 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 facts “suggest that the populist wave in Central and Eastern Europe is receding, stalled by the growing unity of its opponents and a crisis of confidence following the defeat of the former US president,” wrote Andrew Higgins, head of the office of The New York Times for Central and Eastern 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 success of the democratic bloc in eliminating Babis is seen as another indicator, and even as “a manual for the defeat of populists and anti-liberals”, 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 effort to unite before the last elections in 2018 resulted in another constitutional majority for Orban, six disparate parties from the left, liberals, and even the former far-right are organizing to challenge the strongman in a vote next year. .

However, Marton Gyongosi, vice chairman of Jobbik, a party that says it is no longer far-right, says the Hungarian opposition may receive little instruction from the Czech elections because Orban has entrenched himself in a controlled system.

Although Babis controls a significant part of the Czech media, he never mustered enough power to change the electoral or judicial systems as his Hungarian counterpart has, analysts said.

“However, seeing the downfall of any Orban ally offers hope for the cooperation of the Hungarian democratic opposition,” admits Gyongosi.

The embryonic collaboration between Poland’s center-right opposition, which seeks to depose Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party, could benefit more from the Czech lessons, Hanley suggested.

“Babis was not brought down by modern liberals like the Pirate Party, which failed in the elections, but by conservative parties,” he said. “The lesson is that the center-right is key to defeating populism if it can avoid the temptation to move to the right to compete.”

“The unlikely hero in the Czech Republic is ODS leader Petr Fiala, who allowed his strongly conservative social views and Euroscepticism to fade into the background to play the ‘Sensitive Captain’ of Czech politics.”

It remains to be seen whether the captain, who most predict will inevitably become prime minister despite the efforts of Zeman and Babis, and his cohorts will be able to maintain their unity and help the country recover from its outbreak of populism.

The lesson from Slovakia, where the ruling coalition continues to limp from crisis to crisis, suggests that once anti-populist zeal wears off, pressures from power quickly make divisions emerge.

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