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Czech opposition joins hands to unseat PM Babis as election looms

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Prague, Czech Republic – By choosing October 8 and 9 as the dates for the next parliamentary election, Czech President Milos Zeman played a small trick on the opposition, which has already been preparing for months and forming coalitions to try to unseat Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his ruling ANO party.

In light of the catastrophic management of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led the Czech Republic to have one of the highest mortality rates in Europe, the first cracks are starting to appear in the Babis political machinery, which has dominated Czech politics for the past seven years.

And the so-called democratic opposition appears ready to take advantage of it: divided into five parties represented in the Czech Parliament, opposition parties seem to have understood that alliances are the only way to compete in the upcoming election, due to an electoral system that favours the largest parties, and are therefore preparing to present joint candidates within the framework of two different ad-hoc coalitions: one of centre-right and the other of centre-left.

The year 2021 began in full force for the cunning President Milos Zeman, who exploited a loophole in the electoral law which only sets a minimum of 90 days for the Czech election campaign, by launching the campaign nine months ahead of the elections. Technically, this should limit parties’ election expenses, although the move might ultimately not have that much of an impact. Indeed, experts point out that parties might be able to bypass these limitations, and claim that these legal requirements only apply to the coalitions’ direct expenses.

Can Czech right-wing parties unite ahead of the election?

After the regional election of October 2020, the leaders of Czech right and centre-right parties came out celebrating all together, sparking rumours about a possible alliance led by the right-wing ODS (Civic Democracy Party), with the support of the TOP09 liberals and the Christian Democrats of KDU-ČSL. At the beginning of December, all three parties announced they would enter the race under the name Spolu (Together). “We want to rebuild this country together,” said ODS leader Petr Fiala at the launch. The three parties published a list of 17 electoral promises, such as reforms of the tax, social, health and pension systems, an improved education sector, new highways, high-speed internet in every household, etc.

On the one hand, this alliance would allow ODS to go beyond its 12-14% support where it has been stuck for years, and on the other hand would save TOP09 and KDU-ČSL from a possible collapse, with both parties individually hovering around the fateful 5% threshold needed to send MPs to Parliament. But it remains doubtful whether or not the coalition will be able to rally all the potential voters of those three individual parties on election day.

Indeed, ODS is still heavily handicapped by its long history at the head of the government (1992-1998, 2006-2013), as is TOP09 (in power with ODS in 2010-2013) and KDU-ČSL (in power with ODS in 2006-2009). Moreover, many controversial ODS figures openly admiring the likes of Orban, Kaczynski and Trump serve as a deterrent for moderate voters, including the young urban electorate who may well turn to the Pirate Party instead.

Pirates and Mayors join hands

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Czech Pirate Party, the most popular opposition party according to recent polls, will run alongside the Mayors and Independents (STAN) in the October 2021 election. After conducting negotiations in December, STAN’s national committee approved earlier this month a common programme by a strong majority. The Pirates later confirmed the plan at their national forum, and their leader Ivan Bartos has already thanked his future partners on Twitter for “this strong mandate and willingness to work together”. Both parties’ priorities include low taxes, regionally available healthcare, climate protection, innovation and transparent governance. The two parties, who are already working together at the head of the Prague municipal hall (with TOP09), hope to reap more than 25% in October.

When the decision of the national committee was announced, STAN leader Vít Rakusan welcomed the result in a statement and said he hoped “that together we will offer people a vision of a better future for our country and convince them with concrete actions that the state can be modern and fair to its citizens.”

For the small STAN party, whose ambition is to become the main representative of Czech regions, this coalition offers a much-needed guarantee to remain in Parliament, where it was narrowly able to send representatives in 2017 with 5.2% of the vote. They also risk, however, losing their identity in a coalition with a much larger and influential partner. Rakusan mentioned the differences between the two parties, but also defended “a daring political project that gives the Czech Republic hope that this country can be different.” Despite potential ideological frictions – with the Pirate Party being more anchored to the left, while STAN has traditionally been allied with the centre-right – their collaboration in Prague is going rather well.

For both coalitions, the coming months will be critical, and lady luck will favour those that succeed in bringing together their respective electorates. This will undoubtedly be more difficult for the right-wing coalition than for the Pirates and STAN, who can still count on their younger and fresher image. The fate of the coalitions will also depend on the ability of the left-wing parties (Social Democrats of ČSSD and Communists of KSČM, allies of the Babiš government) to stay in parliament, and how the far-right electorate will vote (between SPD and Trikolóra) – elements that could play in favour of the coalitions, since all the votes of the parties that do not manage to pass the 5% threshold are redistributed, with priority given to the biggest players.

What about Babis?

In the end, the main question remains Andrej Babis’s ability to retain the favours of an electorate that has remained very loyal to him until now, and the development of the pandemic will evidently play a determining role. Prancing about in the polls after having contained the first wave, he has weakened in the last few months, slipping a few points from the usual 30%.

By appointing himself as the head of the COVID-19 vaccination operation and receiving the first shot live on television, the Prime Minister hopes to reap the rewards of a way out of the crisis before the elections. It’s a safe bet that he will not skimp on financial means to get the economy up-and-running again, and that he might even make a few targeted gifts to the population before the elections, as he did for the elderly before the regional elections last October.

But regardless of all these measures, the good old strategy of “divide and rule” seems to remain the Prime Minister’s favourite. By announcing a tax cut in spite of the large public deficits, he managed to gain the support of the ultra-liberal ODS, who were later heavily criticised for their alliance with Babis and their fiscal irresponsibility, embarrassing their potential coalition partners.

The Prime Minister then tried, unsuccessfully for now, to sow discord between the Pirates and STAN by multiplying aggressive statements against the Pirates, calling them “a pro-migrant neo-communist party supported by the European Parliament” and “the greatest danger for this country.” It remains to be seen whether the coalitions will succeed in forming a common front and in bringing down the irremovable Andrej Babis. With nine months to go, anything can happen.

Article originally published by Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, an official Kafkadesk partner, and written by André Kapsas.

A Prague-based correspondent, André is a Central Europe and former Eastern bloc specialist, who studied political science and European affairs at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, at Charles University in Prague and the College of Europe in Warsaw.

Headed by Kafkadesk's chief-editor Jules Eisenchteter, our Prague office gathers over half a dozen reporters, editors and contributors, as well as our social media team. It covers everything Czech and Slovak-related, and oversees operations from our other Central European desks in Krakow and Budapest.