This past weekend’s elections in the Czech Republic show the ideological permissiveness of populism. Czech voters dallied with a dizzying array of populist parties from extreme Right to extreme Left, with multiple shades in-between. In a proportional representation system with a 5 percent threshold, three of these parties together garnered 50 percent of the votes.
ANO (“yes” in Czech, as well as an acronym for Association of Dissatisfied Citizens) came first with 30 percent of the vote. It has a vaguely centrist ideology and is a member of the group of liberal parties in the European parliament.
The Pirate Party, a Czech version of the Scandinavian mildly anarchist high-tech and legal drugs franchise, won almost 11 percent of the vote.
Immediately following the Pirate Party came the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD, in its Czech acronym), a xenophobic, extreme right-wing party comparable to Germany’s Alternative for Germany or France’s National Front. Interestingly though, the party is led by Tomio Okamura, a half-Japanese demagogue who rails against cosmopolitanism and immigration. He came to prominence by serving as a judge on (what else?) a “reality show” on Czech television about aspiring entrepreneurs and their projects. His image on election posters was touched up to make him look a bit less Asian.
As in other European elections, the Czech Left has collapsed. The Social Democratic Party, the senior member of the current coalition, managed to take only 7 percent of the vote, just behind the Communist Party, which used to be the protest party. This year, the Communists lost that status to the populists and, with it, more than two-thirds of their parliamentary representation.
All this means that for the first time since its founding 25 years ago, the Czech Republic will be led neither by the Social-Democrats nor by the conservative Civic Democratic Party. The big winner of the elections was billionaire Andrej Babiš: the second wealthiest Czech, founder and head of the ANO Party, and a man who draws obvious comparisons with Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi. Yet there are clear differences between Babiš and those two men—some for better, others for worse, still others somehow for better and worse. This bit of analytical cryptography begs an explanation.
Unlike other populist leaders, Babiš has not displayed signs of psychological pathology. He is rational, intelligent, competent, and self-composed. He has dealt with competitors and opponents in business and politics in a way very unlike Trump: He has bought rather than fought them. If his commercial competitors refused to sell, he made their best employees offers they could not refuse. When the press was less than admiring, he bought the two main quality dailies. In a small media market, this control provided him with protection not just from the journalists who worked for him, but also from the journalists who might one day want to work for him.
This did not stop Babiš from attacking the media for defaming him, but that was another aspect of a campaign full of contradictions: He got rich from being an insider in the wild and largely lawless privatization process of the 1990s, yet he presented himself as an outsider and an anti-system candidate. ANO was the junior partner in the coalition of the past four years, in which Babiš served as Minister of Finance. Yet he managed to pass blame for selective economic failures to his senior Social Democratic coalition partners while taking credit for the generally improved economy.
Four years ago, the Social Democrats miscalculated that they could discredit ANO as a protest movement by integrating it as a junior partner in an establishment coalition. As the economy recovered from the global recession, they also hoped that populist passions would abate. The economy indeed improved, dramatically so: the budget moved into surplus; Czech economic growth is one of the strongest in Europe; and the Czech Republic has the lowest unemployment rate in Europe—all largely thanks to German investment and trade. Yet Babiš as Finance Minister took credit for these successes while managing to distance himself from the perceived corruption of established party “elites.” By the time the Social Democrats woke up to this reality, it was too late. Perhaps the wunderkind Sebastian Kurz in Austria will notice the harvest of this kind of error before he forms a coalition with the Freedom Party.
Politically, Babiš is both more powerful and weaker than other populist leaders. Like Italy’s Berlusconi and to some extent France’s Macron and Austria’s Kurz, he presides over a one-man party that stands or falls on the charisma of its leader. Recalling forty years of Communist propaganda and the wild nomenklatura privatization of the 1990s, it is noteworthy, if not altogether amazing, that the main source of Babiš’ charisma among his voters, like that of Trump and Berlusconi, is his wealth. He has become the Czech equivalent of the American “magnifico” type.
This marks a radical shift in the value system of parts of Czech society. Babiš holds absolute power within his party to appoint or dismiss officials at will. Rather than craft a mass political party like the two major ones in the United States, he has been carefully limiting membership. He has selected functionaries who are either publicly unknown managers from his companies or locally known leaders who have no political affiliation or power base of their own. Both types are entirely dependent on Babiš’s good graces for their political careers and cannot challenge him. For precisely this reason ANO did badly in past Senate elections, in which Czechs vote for individual candidates rather than party lists.
Since the ascendancy of ANO depends entirely on the charisma of its leader (and the disillusionment of the electorate with the patronage system of the traditional two parties), his party will likely disintegrate when Babiš leaves politics. For this reason, his opponents have focused on attempting to separate ANO from its head. Babiš was entangled in various financial improprieties involving the misallocation of E.U. subsidies to his companies under assumed false ownership and is suspected of legally questionable tax avoidance maneuvers. As a result, the Social Democrats managed to remove Babiš from the government in June, and earlier this year parliament lifted Babiš’s parliamentary immunity so he could stand trial.
The Social Democrats possess other forms of ammunition to use against Babiš as well. Young Babiš, whose father was a Communist-era Slovak diplomat, worked during the Communist era in foreign trade. He is mentioned in the files of the Slovak Secret Police as a collaborator. Though Babiš denies the charge, very few Czechoslovaks with access to the West before the fall of the Berlin Wall had nothing to do with that era’s secret police, whether that participation was voluntary or not.
Besides, by the time these revelations were published and the financial accusations made, Babiš had acquired a Trump-like Teflon political skin. ANO’s voters want to believe in him, and no evidence to the contrary will convince them otherwise. In a final moment of desperation before the elections, the Social Democrats attempted to out-populist the populists by promising to halt all immigration from outside the European Union; they also increased the salaries of all civil servants by 10 percent and teachers by 15 percent last month (a responsible enough budget expansion given the current budget surplus). But it all came too late; enough voters had already formed a relationship of faith and trust in Babiš.
How did he do that? Well, ideologically, to paraphrase another Slovak leader, Alexandr Dubček, Babiš offered “populism with a human face.” His social and economic policies are centrist and mainstream, even concerning the populist shibboleth of immigration. Unlike in Britain, all Czech politicians accept unlimited migration from other E.U. countries. They debate instead whether to allow immigration and worker relocation from other Slavic nations with similar histories and culture that are not part of the European Union, like Ukraine and Serbia. With close to full employment, Babiš accepts the need for such labor mobility and, unlike the Social Democrats who attempted to out-populist him by adopting SPD’s xenophobic policies, has supported it.
Accepting refugees and migrants from Muslim countries is a different matter, more symbolic than substantial. Refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan are not interested in settling in the Czech Republic because it offers fewer economic opportunities and less welfare than Germany or Sweden, and there is no pre-existing migrant community to assist in accepting them. If the Czech Republic were to accept the small quota of refugees that the European Union (read: Germany) demands, they would likely leave the country at the first opportunity for Germany, and with the borders of the Schengen Zone still open, nobody can stop them.
On the other hand, Germany insists on other E.U. countries sharing the burden of accepting refugees even symbolically for a good reason: The previous major European refugee crisis of the 1930s was exacerbated by rolling prohibitions on immigration, when one country followed another in imposing beggar-thy-neighbor restrictions. To prevent a recurrence, it is necessary to ensure that, at least symbolically, all E.U. countries agree to accept refugees. Yet ordinary Czechs are afraid of Muslim migration, especially of the potential formation of Muslim enclaves. They see the less-than-successful assimilation of second-generation Muslim migrants in France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, and other continental West European countries, and they recoil.
That said, there has never been a foreign terrorist attack on Czech soil, and there are today no migrant ethnic ghettos in the country. (There are Romani-Gypsy ghettos, but they are long-since indigenous.) The additional element in the stew of fear concerns Germany, a country that still reminds Czechs of deep historical wounds. The perception that migration quotas have been forced on them by Germany, which is far wealthier and also dominates the Czech economy, does not help. Babiš echoed and manipulated these popular fears in rejecting E.U. refuge quotas and Muslim migration. He is unlikely to change tack.
At the same time, fears of a new Central European authoritarian bloc comprising Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria are overblown. Babiš knows well that the Polish and Hungarian governments have practically nothing to offer the Czech Republic. Whatever the historical complications, the source of the Czechs’ historically unprecedented prosperity is Germany. The brightest future for the Czech economy lies with its full integration into the German economic system. In a two-speed Europe, the Czechs and Slovaks must ride in the Volkswagen that Germany drives and that Czech workers build. (Volkswagen is the largest single employer in the Czech Republic.) Babiš, a fairly cosmopolitan polyglot who speaks fluent English, German, and French, will negotiate terms with Merkel and Macron, but the balance of power is such that the French and Germans will find it easy to peel the Czechs and Slovaks away from any budding alliance with Poland or Hungary.
The main potential danger that Babiš’s prospective rule poses is the erosion of democracy and liberal institutional checks and balances, as has already happened in Hungary and especially in Poland. Babiš has promised to change the constitution to disband the Senate and reduce the size of the parliament. He may get a populist majority in the parliament for such reforms, but at present it does not look like he will have anything approaching a sufficient majority in the Senate, if for no other reason than because Czech senators are not about to abolish their own jobs.
The independence of the judiciary, the police, the prosecution, and the secret police from the state executive branch has progressed over the years, starting from less than zero at the end of communism. Babiš’ rule could see some backsliding on this front. The first test would be to see if Babiš manages to stifle the Czech police investigation and prosecution against him and his companies (he will not be able to stop the separate and ongoing E.U. corruption investigation). Next, to follow the populist-authoritarian rulebook, he will need to control directly or, more likely, indirectly the state television and the most popular private television channel, TV Nova (he already owns much of the print media). If he is successful, the large majority of Czechs will receive their news from his people.
Babiš is richer than Trump (and, as he likes to point out, he has never gone bankrupt) in a much smaller and poorer country than the United States. With vast and diverse interests in agriculture, chemicals, and the media, Babiš has equally vast conflicts of interest. As Minister of Finance, he introduced a series of measures involving the digitalization of transactions to prevent tax evasion among small businesses, which happen to be the main competitors of large corporations that cannot hide their income, like his own. The Czech parliament belatedly introduced laws to prevent concentration of media ownership and to exclude businesses owned by government ministers from receiving subsidies. It will be interesting to see whether a Babiš Administration will be able to defang these measures, and to what extent Babiš will further enrich himself during his term. He could become, in effect, the majority owner as well as elected manager of his country. This would achieve, in a sense, the most radical version of the privatization of the state ever, and would put him in the company of the Russian czars of old who owed essentially everything, including most of the people.
What’s next? Horse-trading.
ANO gained 78 of the 200 members of the Czech Parliament. It will prefer to form a coalition with some of the traditional political parties, continue the coalition of the past four years with the Social Democrats (15) and centrist Christian Democrats (10), or form a coalition with the right-wing Civic Democrats (25) to make 103. But the leaders of the traditional parties have declared that they will not form a coalition with a Prime Minister who faces criminal charges, this being part of their attempt to decapitate ANO. But the Social Democrats and Civic Democrats have clientelist networks to maintain with businesses that benefit from state contracts, so it remains to be seen if their threats will last.
If all else fails, Babiš may try to form “a coalition from hell” with the xenophobic SPD (22 MPs) and the passive support of the Communist Party (15) in return for favors to Communist officials and frequent plebiscites, and a halt to immigration for the SPD. The domestic and international disaster that such a coalition would constitute may be a useful bargaining chip to bring in the traditional parties.
If no coalition forms, the President of the Czech Republic, who usually has only ceremonial powers, can step in to appoint a caretaker government of his own loyalists, an option the current and previous two Presidents have exercised in times of political impasse in parliament. The President, Miloš Zeman (who is widely believed to be financed, owned, and operated by Putin’s Russia), himself will have to run for re-election early next year, which current polls predict he will lose in the second round. But in the meantime, if the political parties cannot reach an agreement, the President will have dominant power. By February 2018 there may be a new President, elected directly, and if the polls are right that will be the centrist Jiri Drahoš, a scientist and former president of the Czech Academy of Science.
Meanwhile, as the horse-trading goes on, other deeper historical factors are asserting themselves. Czechs have always been more homogenous and egalitarian than the nations surrounding them. It is striking that demographic variables had little effect on voting patterns. Yes, the populist ANO and SPD appealed to voters who were typically less educated, more rural, and older than the average, while the Pirate Party appealed to better educated, more urban, and younger-than-average voters. But the differences were modest. There is no American- or British-style polarization, and politicians by and large do not try to exploit such polarization as does exist.
This underlying social calm, along with good location and a reasonably skilled and disciplined work force, is largely responsible for the revivification of the pre-Cold War patterns of German-Czech economic and social integration. As long as Germany is the engine of economic growth in Europe, the Czechs will continue to be incredibly lucky. They have already passed the standard of living in Portugal and are about to pass Spain’s. Globalization and European integration work for them. It has not trickled down everywhere yet, but it likely will in a country of fewer than 11 million people. These factors and the mildly “humane” and humorous nature of the culture give reasons for optimism in the long run.
The Czech experience offers a few global political lessons: Anti-elitist and politically disruptive populism does not line up exclusively with extreme right-wing ideologies. There can be centrist, and even buttoned-down anarchist forms of populism, though left-wing populism seems to have gone missing amid the general decline of the Left.
Conceiving of populist movements as exclusively protest movements bound to melt into the incorporating embrace of the establishment is a false notion. Joining government coalitions does not necessarily rub the establishment’s stench on populist movements. As we knew already, populist voters today deify tycoons and vilify politicians in a kind of secular religious faith that worships the God of Mammon.
On the other hand, the prospective Czech presidential election demonstrates that another elite group, at least in and around Prague, may have so far escaped the hot breath of populist wrath: scientists. That may not translate to the United States, however. No one is talking about Michio Kaku for President in 2020.