Brno, Czech Republic – Among the advertisements of community fundraisers, art exhibitions, and outdoor festivals at the neglected bus stop in Borač, a village 33 kilometers from Brno, an election campaign poster displays a straightforward message: “No party is ideal, but this is an easier choice.”
Below, it elaborated on the reasons why voting for either the SPOLU or STAN/Pirates coalitions was better than for any other party, including the current ruling party ANO. SPOLU means “together” and is a center-right alliance made up of the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), KDU-ČSL, and TOP 09. STAN/Pirates, the second grouping of the so-called “democratic opposition bloc”, is a liberal alliance made up of the Mayors and Independents and the Czech Pirates party.
With voting closing this afternoon, the Czech elections have people on edge. As in many countries, Covid-19 is a major inflection point in society. The Czech Republic started out as “best in Covid,” as Prime Minister Andrej Babis (ANO) infamously put it, with low infection and death rates due to widespread mask mandates and strict and early lockdowns.
Due to poor management, however, the situation quickly deteriorated and led to a historically low amount of trust in the governing party, with the Czech Republic recording one of the highest death rates per capita in the world.
The election’s focus, including in international media, tends to be on Prague, the cosmopolitan and more liberal capital that my Czech family hoped would “save” Czechia from re-electing President Milos Zeman in 2018. But as anywhere else, this fails to accurately depict the mood of the country as a whole.
Let’s zoom in for a moment and look at how residents of small towns and villages around Tisnov, a 9,000-people hub of the South Moravian region and my home of four years, are weighing their electoral choices.
Coronavirus has made its mark on voters
Czechs spent roughly a year in lockdown, which they call being zavření (“closed/locked at home”). During this time, government shakeups and populist flip-flops caused widespread frustration and uncertainty. Despite continued requirements to wear masks on public transport and in shops and restaurants, many do not.
Julie H. of Zelezne, who does not support restrictions in the form of lockdowns or school closures, expresses what many have on their minds right now: “Personally, I am waiting for elections to be over to see how COVID restrictions will tighten again. No one wants to talk about that before elections.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has clearly and quite logically left its mark on voters, both the population and political parties are eager to avoid discussing the topic as much as possible.
Other issues, mainly revolving around corruption and rule-of-law concerns, have come to the fore of public debate. The poster in favour of either SPOLU or STAN/Pirates outlines three main advantages: both coalitions say they would restrict politicians’ ability of influencing the media, support independent courts, and reject any cooperation with ANO, right-wing extremist parties like Tomio Okamura’s SPD, and the Communist party.
All three proposals are directly aimed at Prime Minister Andrej Babis.
Unclear, “confusing” messaging
But for many South Moravian residents, uncertainty prevails.
“Czech elections are as important as anywhere in the world, and this year I’m expecting a bigger turnout than in the previous years as a lot of people are hoping for a change,” says Zita, a local teacher. “I also do, but don’t see a suitable candidate” who would be able to bring it.
For Zita, the opposition parties haven’t made their case successfully. “Their campaign is largely focused on criticizing ANO, but don’t present clearly how they intend to achieve their goals,” or even what their actual goals are.
Veronika P., a Tišnov mother of young children, says she hasn’t been able to “make sense of the various parties, their programs and the coalitions they’ve formed.” She hasn’t followed the elections much because she finds it “confusing.”
Voting out the ruling party, or not at all
For other voters, though, the choice has never been clearer.
Though ANO’s lead has shrunk, a recent poll still shows them winning the highest share of votes, followed by SPOLU, with the STAN/Pirates in third. In a nationwide school simulation, Czech schoolchildren have expressed their support for these parties in reverse order.
With the spectre of Babis’ disastrous management of the Covid pandemic fading away, and the uncertain impact of the Pandora Papers leak on the billionaire Prime Minister’s campaign, most polls still put ANO on top, although far from winning a clear majority.
Ondrej R., who lives in a suburb of Brno, doesn’t plan to vote for any of them. “This year, I’ve watched too many debates for my liking. I have no issue not voting when there are no capable parties [and] I don’t think we should ‘vote for the lesser evil,’” he says, referring to the opposition coalitions.
In contrast with Ondrej’s feeling that Czech elections have “very little impact on what is actually going to happen in our little ecosystem,” Honza P. of the village of Úsusi doesn’t want to be “stuck with the current PM” and feels another win for ANO “doesn’t just affect the years until the next election, but will have on impact for several election cycles.”
In this election, Honza’s canditatorial choices are “much clearer. Before, I voted for Svobodní [a Eurosceptic, libertarian party]. I liked what they stood for, but they never got over the 5% threshold” needed to enter Parliament.
This time? “I’m throwing away my beliefs and choosing to go with the party that has a chance of defeating ANO.”
The fiery temperature of debate
Voters also hold different views of what they’ve seen on the debate stage. “I don’t want [a candidate] who can’t stand on their own two feet and speak out against something they believe is wrong,” says Honza. On the other hand, Zita found the debates unhelpful and “mostly made up of insulting lies and populist rhetoric,” some of which has focused on the parties’ different approaches on immigration.
Anti-vaccination disinformation also plays a large role in political messaging. Just two days after snapping a picture of the pro-opposition poster, another had been pasted directly on top of it. This time, it was a three-panel photo of representatives from the small, far-right Volný Blok (“Free Bloc”), declaring, “We forbid experiments on our children,” referring to the debate on whether or not under-18s and younger children should be inoculated against Covid-19.
Though Volný Blok is unlikely to win seats in the lower house of Parliament, their message reflects commonly held beliefs in a disillusioned, vaccine-hesitant population.
From my discussions and interactions with voters in South Moravia, many Czechs are either for ANO, against ANO (and specifically anti-Babis), or feel so disillusioned with politics that they don’t plan on voting at all.
There is a widespread feeling that citizens do not have enough power – or willpower – to influence the political outcome, a frustration only made worse by the fact that the election will likely be followed by weeks of behind-closed-doors coalition talks between the main parties.
With President Milos Zeman – an ailing Babis ally in charge of formally nominating the Prime Minister and his government – thrown in the mix as the wild card making the outcome even more unpredictable.
Whether pro-Babis or pro-opposition, Czech voters appear disillusioned by an environment where political discourse often amounts, as Ondrej eloquently puts it, to “a screeching fest of children in suits and dresses.”
By Chloé Skye Weiser
Chloé is a sustainability and culture writer who has been published in Expats.cz, Earth911, and Standart Magazine, among others. Originally from New York, she has also lived in Israel, Czech Republic, and Denmark. You can check out her other articles right here.