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
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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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.