By Jakub Šrámek, Intern at KEDISA
At a general parliamentary election held on 8-9 October 2021 and hailed as a victory for liberal democracy in the Czech Republic, ex Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s party ANO was defeated in the popular vote by a new centre-right alliance that formed the next coalition government.
Most opinion polls before the election gave ANO a few percentage point lead over SPOLU but it ended up trailing to the centre-right alliance by around half a point. ANO´s final strech of campaign might have backfired. Mr Babiš ramped up his anti-immigration rhetoric before the election and also invited the controversial Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to a campaign rally.
Mr Babiš, a billionaire and the second richest man in the Czech Republic, tried to swing across the political spectrum. However, his campaign was thwarted by allegations of corruption. An audit of the European Commission earlier this year found that there was a conflict of interest as its conglomerate Agrofert received EU subsidies. A few days before the election, he was pressured to explain the suspicious offshore structure he used to buy a mansion (worth 15 million euro) in the south of France, as stated in the “Pandora Papers“.
For the first time since 1920, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM) will not be represented in the Czech parliament, since it failed to win more than 5% of the vote, the threshold needed to enter parliament. The oldest political party in the Czech Republic, the Social Democrats (ČSSD), also failed to enter parliament for the first time in its history. Experts believe that ANO sapped left-wing voters from its outgoing coalition partner, the ČSSD, as well as from the far-left KSČM, which had backed Babiš’s minority government in parliament since 2018. On the campaign trail, Mr Babiš frequently spoke about his government raising the minimum wage and pensions, a key policy for the mainly left-wing elderly vote.
With these losses, the next Czech government is therefore going to be made up of a partnership between two different right-of-centre coalitions. SPOLU coalition, which brings together three traditional, right-of-centre political parties, managed to secure 71 seats in the parliament. Within this coalition, the strong electoral support for the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) was quite surprising, given its association with corruption in the 1990s. On the other hand, since becoming the leader of ODS seven years ago, Mr Fiala has put a lot of effort to clear the party’s legacy.
The other coalition, that of the Pirate Party (PIR) and the Mayors and Independents party (STAN), seems more liberal. It gained almost 16% of the vote and 37 parliamentary seats. However, this is where the election brought another surprise. As an individual entity, the Pirate Party flopped. It had 22 MPs in the parliament before this election and now has just four. Nevertheless, the huge success of STAN means that the Pirates, as a coalition partner, to will rewarded with three ministerial posts.
The most important outcome of this election is that there is now a majority in the Chamber of Deputies of 108 votes out of 200, that wants to see a change in the leadership of the Czech Republic. The five democratic parties signed the coalition agreement an formed the new government of the Czech Republic. There are still some problems though. The biggest one is the fact that a government consisting of five different parties will have a hard time making it through the full four years. It will be a struggle for the two alliances, which have very different political interests, to find common ground.
There has been a lot of turmoil in Czech politics since the elections including president Zeman‘s hospitalization. The day after the election, 77-year-old Zeman was rushed to hospital with an undisclosed illness and remained there for more than six weeks, much of it in isolation. Since the two coalitions have a clear majority in the House of Commons, President Zeman appointed the leader of SPOLU Petr Fiala as prime minister and tasked him to form the next government on the 28th of November. Mr Zeman also asked to have a meeting with all of the ministerial nominees.
In the following week, Mr Zeman said he would not accept the nomination of Jan Lipavský for the Ministery of Foreign Affairs. The president’s spokesperson said Mr Lipavský is not adequately qualified since he completed only a bachelor’s degree. In the statement, Zeman also took issue with Lipavský’s distant positions toward the Visegrád Group, as well as toward Israel. This move by president Zeman is seen as unconstitutional by most commentators but is not the first time Mr Zeman used it. Mr Fiala, the then prime minister designated (new PM since 17th December 2021), responded that he does not believe that the president has the right to veto ministerial nominees and said that the coalition insists on Lipavský’s appointment and are ready to take the matter to the constitutional court.
On Monday the 14th of December, after meeting with Mr Fiala, president Zeman in a rare gesture of conciliation, backed down and the government will be appointed in the shape and form in which it was proposed originally. The reason for this almost unprecedented concession is probably the fact, that the Czech Republic is currently going through its worst wave of COVID infections since the start of the pandemic, also the energy prices and all round inflation are piling up, it would not be beneficial to drag the country into a constitutional crisis. So finally, after more than two months since the election, the Czech Republic will have a new government.
The parties now forming the new Czech government all share a commitment to democratic principles. Despite their philosophical differences, the parties are expected to adopt a foreign policy that aligns with strongly pro-human rights, pro-democratic ideals. The new government will mean a stabilization of Czech democracy and a strong confirmation of its Western commitments, to the EU and NATO. In the coalition agreement, one of the top priorities is stronger orientation explicitly on EU and NATO. This would most likely mean stronger opposition to Russian and Chinese influences. It is also likely to cause a split among the Visegrad group countries, taking into consideration the shift from the rule of law principles in Poland and Hungary. There have been voices calling for the Czech Republic to distance itself completely from Visegrad among the coalition partners. The nomination of Mr Lipavský only confirms these voices. The shift towards the West can also be seen in the fact that the new government will create the position of the EU affairs minister to coordinate the EU agenda.
Culík, J. (2021). Czech election: an oligarch defeated and a president in hospital – what on earth happened? The Conversation. (https://theconversation.com/czech-election-an-oligarch-defeated-and-a-president-in-hospital-what-on-earth-happened-169672).
Ditrych, O. (2021). The Czech Republic’s Political Turnaround Isn’t a Liberal Victory. Foreign Policy. (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/11/02/czech-republic-election-liberal-democracy-babis-zeman/).
Euronews (2021). Czech president asks head of centre-right coalition Petr Fiala to form new government. (https://www.euronews.com/2021/11/09/czech-president-asks-head-of-centre-right-coalition-petr-fiala-to-form-new-government).
Gavenda J. (2021). Blokování Lipavského? Ať rozhodne Ústavní soud, vzkázal Zemanovi Fiala. Seznam Zprávy. (https://www.seznamzpravy.cz/clanek/domaci-politika-blokovani-lipavskeho-at-rozhodne-ustavni-soud-vzkazal-zemanovi-fiala-183113).
Hutt, D. (2021). Six takeaways from the Czech Republic’s historic election. Euronews. (https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/10/six-takeaways-from-the-czech-republic-s-historic-election).
Kottová, A. (2021). Pětice lídrů Spolu a PirSTAN podepsala koaliční smlouvu vznikající vlády. Kabinet má mít 18 členů. iRozhlas. (https://www.irozhlas.cz/zpravy-domov/koalicni-smlouva-petr-fiala-vlada-cr-spolu-pirati-stan_2111081111_ako).
Liu, N. (2021). New Czech Government Expected to Take Tougher Line on China, Russia. VOAnews. (https://www.voanews.com/a/new-czech-government-expected-to-take-tougher-line-on-china-russia-/6310297.html)
Mortkowitz, S. (2021). Center-right leader Petr Fiala appointed as Czech PM. Politico. (https://www.politico.eu/article/center-right-leader-petr-fiala-appointed-as-czech-pm/).
Prague Morning (2021). The Future Czech Government Wants to Return to Václav Havel’s Values. (https://praguemorning.cz/the-future-czech-government-wants-to-return-to-vaclav-havels-values/)
Reuters (2021). Czech president to appoint new government on Friday despite reservations. (https://www.reuters.com/markets/rates-bonds/czech-president-appoint-new-government-friday-despite-reservations-2021-12-13/).
Tait, R. (2021). Czech president rejects nominee for foreign minister over ‘low qualifications’. The Guardian. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/10/czech-president-rejects-nominee-for-foreign-minister-over-low-qualifications).
Zachová, A. (2021). New Czech government mulls appointment of EU minister. Eurodirect. (https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/new-czech-government-mulls-appointment-of-eu-minister/).