There’s more to populism than economic hardship: Just look at the Czech Republic
Czech Billionaire and politician Andrej Babis celebrates the 2013 Parliamentary elections with, circus performer Jaromir Joo and his tiger cub. Credit: Vit Simanek/Czech News Agency/Press Association Images   

Czechia was once a model former Eastern Bloc nation. Comfortably part of the EU and NATO, it had successfully switched to a Western-style mixed economy and adopted a vibrant, multi-party democracy. Indeed, its 2006 election results read just like any from Western Europe: five parties ranging from far-left to centre-right garnered 93 percent of the vote and all the seats in parliament.

Today, though, everything is different. October’s election gave the ANO party led by Czech billionaire Andrej Babis (aka the “Czech Donald Trump”)1 nearly 30 percent of the vote and 78 seats in the 200-seat Czech parliament. Moreover, the third and fourth largest parties in terms of votes and seats are also populist entities that did not even exist ten years ago. Overall, a majority of Czechs voted for parties that represent an array of views but agree on one: the status quo stinks.2

Conventional analysis cannot explain this. The Czech economy, like most economies, dropped after the 2008 financial crisis. But by 2012 it was growing again and from 2015 to election day economic growth surged, hitting 4.7 percent annually by the second quarter of 2017.3 Unemployment was also very low, dropping to a mere 2.9 percent by June 2017, the lowest in the EU.4 Wages were rising well above inflation. Czechs should have been happy and rewarded the Social Democrat-led government with an increased majority.

Overall, a majority of Czechs voted for parties that represent an array of views but agree on one: the status quo stinks.

The fact that they didn’t – instead, the Social Democrats dropped to a mere 7.3 percent, their lowest ever – should give every developed world leader pause. For it shows that populism is not merely about economics: it’s also about culture. You cannot simply feed people’s bellies: you must also feed their souls.

Czech populism did not start in reaction to the 2008 financial crash, as it did in Ireland and many Southern European countries. Nor did it arise as a working-class protest against migration or a stagnant economy as in Scandinavia, France, and the Low Countries. Instead, it arose because of repeated scandals that convinced many Czechs that politicians from the established parties cared more about themselves than the people they purportedly represented.

Public Affairs5 was the first Czech populist party to gain parliamentary representation, and it was founded by Radek John, a journalist who investigated public corruption charges.6 Its rise (it won 11% of the vote) was facilitated by a series of scandals involving the Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, a year-long controversy over the attempt to schedule a snap election, and the sense that many of Topolanek’s centre-right ODS party had become corrupt in office.7 Public Affairs was centre-right in its policies, however, and quickly joined a three-party government headed by Topolanek’s successor, Petr Necas, and a new centre-right party, TOP 09.8

With 10 major parties competing for screen time in a televised debate, Czech voters had no shortage of candidates to choose from. Credit: Michal Dolezal/Czech News Agency/Press Association Images

This is of interest because Czechs reacted to the post-crash recession by giving more power to the centre-right even though ODS had led the government when the crash occurred. But the parties within that coalition did not escape censure. ODS dropped from 35 percent to 20 percent and its coalition partners, the Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and the Greens (SZ) were eliminated from parliament altogether.9 But Czechs also punished the main centre-left party, the Social Democrats (CSSD) even though they had not participated in the government, decreasing their share of the vote from 32 percent to 22 percent.10 Czechs were clearly more interested in restoring public order than they were in altering their political economy.

They were soon cruelly disappointed. By April 2011, one of the three ministers belong to Public Affairs had been accused of bribery by another Public Affairs deputy. In 2012, that minister, his accuser, and another Public Affairs leader was charged with bribery or corruption. By 2013, Public Affairs had split, with some deputies supporting the government while others joined a new party, Dawn of Direct Democracy, that touted initiative and referendum “as a solution to the corruption, nepotism, clientelism, and kleptocracy”.11 As tawdry as all this was, the Czechs hadn’t seen anything yet.

That June, a fresh scandal broke open setting new lows even for the long-suffering country. The very Prime Minister who had a reputation for honesty was embroiled in accusations that he and chief ODS aides had used state security to spy on the PM’s estranged wife whom he was in the process of divorcing.12 The aides, including Prime Minister Necas’ chief of staff13, were also charged with bribing recalcitrant lawmakers to make certain key votes. Millions of dollars and over ten kilos of gold were seized by state police. Within a week, the PM resigned; within two months, snap elections had been called.

Populism is not merely about economics: it’s also about culture. You cannot simply feed people’s bellies: you must also feed their souls.

Those elections show a shift away from the traditional parties, and from the left versus right framework, towards a more populist, ins versus outs approach. ODS plummeted to a mere 7.5 % of the vote and its coalition partner also saw its vote share drop. Despite the turmoil engulfing the centre-right government, the Social Democrats again saw their vote drop. Parties that had a clear place on the left/right continuum received only 73.5% of the vote, down from nearly 94% just seven years earlier. Moreover, a significant portion of that vote was going to parties that did not exist in 2006. The five parties that had garnered 93% in 2006 received a mere 53% in 2013.

The beneficiary of this revolution was the new Association of Dissatisfied Citizens, or ANO to use its Czech acronym.14 Led by the man who now looks likely to become Prime Minister, Andrej Babis, ANO won nearly 19% of the vote, second only to the Social Democrats. Babis focused on ending parliamentary immunity and cleaning up corruption, arguing that only people who stood outside the political system could clean it up. Unlike Public Affairs, it also eschewed any attempt to place it consistently on a left/right pendulum. Supporting both increased social spending on infrastructure and fiscal rectitude, ANO’s platform allowed dissatisfied citizens from all ideologies to say “yes” to change.15

The party that split from Public Affairs, Dawn, also entered parliament with about 7% of the vote. Dawn was led and financed by a businessperson, the Japanese-Czech Tomio Okamura. But it was slightly different from ANO in that it argued for stricter immigration policies and a cut in the VAT. These policies distinguished it from the anti-corruption appeals of Public Affairs and ANO, allowing Dawn to make inroads into working-class Czech areas. Dawn’s weakest region was in the city of Prague, which is the richest region in Czechia and a long-time stronghold of the centre-right.16 It’s strongest regions were in the poorer regions in Moravia, long strongholds of the Social Democrats and Communists.17

Babis secured the role of Finance Minister in the ensuing coalition government with the CSSD and the KDU-CSL. In that role, he helped to guide the Czech budget into surplus at the same time the economy began to take off. Thus, it is likely that he and ANO, not the CSSD, received a significant amount of credit for the economic recovery.

The rise of the migration issue throughout Europe also played into increasing public dissatisfaction with established parties. By 2015, Dawn had split into multiple parties, with Okamura leading his acolytes into the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party. SPD takes a very hostile line toward migration and the EU; it is part of Marine Le Pen’s Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom and received her support during the election.18

Demonstrations in Prague against Finance Minister Andrej Babis. Credit: Katerina Sulova/Czech News Agency/Press Association Images

But it was Babis who seized the mantle of the new anti-refugee fervor. As the Atlantic’s David Frum notes, conventional centre-left and centre-right parties acceded to German pressure to accept some of the refugees that flocked to Angela Merkel’s opening of German borders in the summer of 2015. Babis, who had never made immigration an issue, resisted and came out against mass migration or refugee settlement.19 But while this probably helped him ride that wave of sentiment, the fact is that ANO had been leading almost every Czech opinion poll since early 2014, trailing in only seven of the over 100 polls taken between the 2013 election and mid-2017.20 Babis and ANO’s broad tent populism had captured the Czech imagination well before refugee policy had become the central issue of European politics.

ANO’s election victory was turned into a landslide, moreover, by exactly the sort of petty infighting and political maneuvering that had given rise to Czech populism to begin with. In May 2017, the Czech PM announced he would resign because of alleged tax avoidance by Babis. He then proceeded to renounce his resignation, fire Babis, take back his action, and then finally sack Babis, replacing him with another member of ANO.21 This followed the sacking of a key figure of the CSSD’s left wing, Jiri Dienstbier, and accompanied a move towards the sort of anti-immigrant policies that Okamura and Babis had long been championing.22

The result was the astonishing collapse of the Social Democrats. Its working-class base from outside of Prague and its Bohemian environs, referred to as “pork and cabbage voters,” abandoned it in droves in favor of ANO and the SPD. Meanwhile, its professional, middle-class supporters in Prague and Bohemia deserted the party and flocked to the Pirates.23 ODS gained slightly and the KDU-CSL’s share did not change much, but the revolution was complete: the five parties that once won nine in ten votes won slightly more than a third.

Voters will not overlook continued self-dealing. They insist that their concerns be treated with respect, especially those over questions of rapid migration or national identity.

The collapse on the left has been nothing short of stunning. In 2010, the four parties that traditionally comprise the left24 won 35.7%. In 2013, 44.5%. This year, a mere 16.9%.

Parties of the center and centre-right, meanwhile, barely budged in the past few years. Their initial decline from 42% in 2010 helped to fuel the initial onset of Czech populism, but Czechia’s current populist moment is here solely because of the left’s demise.

It’s tempting to write this off as the simple problems of a small, insignificant country. Tempting, but wrong. Czechia’s move into populism mirrors that of other European countries that have suffered from endemic corruption and political infighting. Italy, for instance, has seen the rise of a broad-tent populist party, Five Star Movement, that seems eerily similar to ANO in its approach to politics and in the charismatic appeal of its non-political leader. Italy also has a party that corresponds to the SPD in the Lega Nord/Up with Salvini, which has transformed itself from a regional party advocating autonomy for Northern Italy into a national party decrying the rise of illegal migration. Just as in Czechia, politics as usual has left the traditional centre-left and centre-right parties with less than majority support in the polls less than a year before that nation’s pivotal elections.

The lesson for political and financial leaders is clear. Voters in these times will not overlook continued self-dealing. They also insist that their concerns be treated with respect, especially those over questions of rapid migration or national identity. Failure to do so will not meet with shrugs and acceptance; they will instead be met with an excited embrace of any outsider who promises to help. If the developed world does not want to reap the whirlwind, it should stop sowing the wind.

 

FOOTNOTES
  1.  Babis received that moniker because he, too, is a self-made businessman who jumped into politics at the head of a new movement without any prior political experience. See USA today 
  2.  The majority comes from the ANO Party (29.64%), the Pirate Party (10.79%), and the anti-immigrant Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (10.64%). VOLBY CZ (in Czech).
  3.  For statistics prior to 2016, see OECD. 2017 results can be found at Countryeconomy.com.
  4.  Quartz
  5.   Věci veřejné in Czech, which led to the party abbreviation, VV.
  6.  Czech Radio
  7.  Topolanek’s travails came to prominent notice in the English-speaking world when he was identified in a photo of being nude and in a state of arousal near topless women at Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi’s private pool. The Guardian . He stepped down as the ODS party leader reluctantly shortly before the 2010 election. On the question of the perception of ODS corruption, see Czech Radio (Topolanek’s replacement “one of the few in the current Civic Democrat leadership who has a reputation for being honest and hard-working and not corrupt”). See also The Economist (“the corruption and squabbling of the political class moves Czechs to a sort of languid despair.”)
  8.  TOP 09 was formed by some politicians who broke away from the centrist Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and ODS. “TOP” stands for “Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity” in Czech. See TOP 09 . TOP 09 is the only centre-right party of which this author is aware that says in its statement of principles that “There can never be enough smiling. Not to smile at somebody all day long is a crime.”
  9.  VOLBY.CZ
  10.  A new party that split from CSSD in an internal dispute, SPOZ, received 4.33 percent, just missing the five percent threshold for parliamentary representation.
  11.  Open democracy
  12.  The Economist
  13.  Necas married his former Chief of Staff within a month after his divorce and only a few months after her arrest. iDNES.CZ
  14.  ANO is also a Czech word that means “yes”.
  15.  ANO continues to openly eschew placement on the left/right pendulum. See the comments of Tatana Mala, ANO candidate in South Moravia, in the 2017 elections. ANO
  16.  For GDP per capita by Czech region, see Wikipedia
  17.  See VOLBY.CZ (in Czech; Dawn – Usvit in Czech – received between 8 and 10 percent of the vote in the regions of Olomuc, Zlin, and Moravia-Silesia while getting less than 4 percent in Prague.) By comparison, Public Affairs (VV) and ANO had much more even distributions of their votes among Czechia’s regions. See above for ANO in 2013 and VOLBY.CZ for VV in 2010.
  18.  Youtube. The English translation of its website makes its priorities quite clear: “The End of the EU Dictatorship. Not Islam, Not Terrorists. Support for Those Who Need It. Justice for Every Citizen.” See  SPD (translated by Google Translate).
  19.  Frum’s article on the Czech election and its antecedent causes is found at The Atlantic 
  20.  Wikipedia
  21.  Politico
  22.  Politico
  23.  VOLBY.CZ
  24.  CSSD (Social Democrats), KCSM (Communists), SPOZ (Social Democrat split), and SZ (Greens).