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The Czech Left Is Being Punished for Its Disastrous Record in Government

Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš is a scandal-plagued, right-wing billionaire. In this weekend’s elections, the Czech Republic’s social democratic and communist parties are set to be punished for keeping his government in power.

Andrej Babiš, right-wing billionaire and prime minister of the Czech Republic. (David Sedlecký / Wikimedia Commons)

“He raised pensions, he raised wages, while the governments before just promised and didn’t do anything,” says Bohuslav, a pensioner who came to support Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš at his election rally in the industrial town of Ústí nad Labem. “Finally, pensioners don’t have to go around in tracksuits and search for discounts in supermarket fliers, they can buy normal products now,” says Petr, also retired. The elderly crowd is waiting to get into the local theater to see their favorite candidate in dialogue with his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orbán, who came to give Babiš a boost ahead of the parliamentary elections on October 8–9.

Talking with Babiš’s fans, it is obvious that they remain undeterred by the countless scandals facing the tycoon, who is presently indicted for the embezzlement of European Union (EU) subsidies and now faces allegations of dodgy offshore dealings coming out of the Pandora Papers investigation. “It’s all invented,” says Jiří, also retired. For Bohuslav, it’s only relative: “All politicians have scandals.” “He doesn’t need to steal, because he already has money, he worked hard his whole life to make it,” explains Věra, a devoted fan of the billionaire oligarch-turned-politician.

Hostile Takeover

First entering the fray eight years ago, Andrej Babiš has rocked Czech politics. Prime minister since 2017, he still enjoys high popularity ratings despite his scandals and his catastrophic management of the pandemic.

After making a fortune through murky privatization deals in the agrochemical industry in the 1990s and 2000s, he tried his hand in the electoral arena at the start of the last decade. At the head of the “Dissatisfied Citizens’ Action” movement (Akce nespokojených občanů, ANO — the acronym spells “yes” in Czech), he presented himself as a successful businessman who would “manage the state like a firm,” insisting, “We are not like politicians, we work.”

Babiš and his team wielded this kind of centrist economic populism to take advantage of the citizens’ deep dissatisfaction with the two main parties who had been ruling the country since the end of state socialism in 1989: the Czech Social Democratic Party (Česká strana sociálně demokratická, ČSSD) and the right-wing Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana, ODS). The two parties had become deeply corrupted over the years, often engaging in backdoor deals with one another to keep their clientelistic networks running. When the right-wing coalition crashed amid another scandal in 2013, it looked like the social democratic ČSSD would get its turn at the wheel, as usual, but Babiš rose in the polls and finished a close second.

The ČSSD needed a coalition partner — and Babiš was all too happy to get his share of power, even if it meant pretending to support social democratic ideas and sitting in government with those he had called “gangsters.” Apparently thinking it could tame this political novice, the ČSSD granted him the finance ministry. But they underestimated the charisma and marketing machine of the man who had bought a small media empire before the elections, and he soon started to siphon off working-class voters.

Babiš did this by taking all the credit for the socioeconomic improvement resulting from the end of austerity and good macroeconomic weather in Central Europe. After years of senseless belt-tightening, the government took measures to help those hit hardest by the crisis, such as lower-paid workers and pensioners. For example, the minimum wage, which had been stuck at around €300 a month between 2008 and 2014, rose to €400 between 2014 and 2017. Salaries went up and unemployment hit record lows.

While the ČSSD was stuck between its old-school cronies and its liberal wing — confusing voters with contradictory messages over issues like the refugee crisis that erupted in 2015 — Babiš received the credit for socioeconomic improvements. He closely tracked opinion polls over all other topics, staying away from culture wars before taking a hard line against refugees once it was clear that xenophobic sentiments were prevailing. He established himself as a good financial manager, a generous head of household, and a “reasonable” figure.

Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me

Ahead of the previous elections in 2017, Babiš was formally accused of having embezzled EU funds. Confronted with a scandal dating back fully a decade, the Social Democrats moved in on him, forcing him to resign. Yet this was too little, too late, and voters mostly sided with the oligarch, who presented himself as the victim of an elite conspiracy. Considering the deep corruption of the two mainstream parties and widespread cynicism toward politics, many citizens were quick to believe him — or at least see the scandal as nothing of great consequence. His ANO vehicle won the elections with close to 30 percent of the vote, while the ČSSD received a disastrous 7.3 percent.

The party’s liberal leadership resigned after the defeat, and the leadership was taken over by the relatively unknown Jan Hamáček, who faced the challenge of winning back voters captured by ANO. In this context, a spell on the opposition benches would probably have allowed the party to recover from its thrashing by recentering on its traditional social democratic message. Yet Hamáček was lured by Babiš into renewing their coalition. Despite providing only fifteen of the 101 necessary seats for a parliamentary majority, the Social Democrats received five ministerial positions. Babiš also managed to convince the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy, KSČM), the unreconstructed heirs of the party that ruled the country between 1948 and 1989, to support the new government, albeit without directly participating in it. In doing so, Babiš broke a post-1989 taboo excluding Communists from power on the national level.

The Social Democratic leadership’s bet going into this second Faustian pact with the tycoon was that the ČSSD could make an impression in government and win back support — and the same kind of thinking led party members to back the coalition deal in an internal referendum. During the pandemic, party leader Hamáček used his position as interior minister to try to project the image of good crisis manager, at a time when Babiš’s own erratic micromanagement hardly seemed reassuring. But things turned sour last fall, when the second wave of COVID-19 hit the country and neither Babiš nor his social democratic allies sounded the alarm early enough to avoid a catastrophe. The ČSSD also failed to stop the prime minister from prematurely reopening the country before Christmas, leading the country to spend four more months with among the highest rates of infections and deaths in the world.

While Babiš was able to bounce back somewhat by heading the vaccination campaign and taking credit for the financial support offered during the crisis, the ČSSD was left with nothing to show for itself. No crackdown on precarious work contracts. No law on social housing. No real progressive taxation. Whenever the Social Democrats tried to challenge the prime minister and force him to pass measures, Babiš ignored them, and they in turn caved, becoming completely discredited in the eyes of electors.

Even worse, the Social Democrats watched by as their senior coalition partner teamed up with the far right and the Right on several votes, pushing for tax relief benefiting better-off employees and implementing a new building law tailor-made by the developers’ lobby. Caught in a kind of Stockholm syndrome, the Social Democrats lost all credibility by criticizing the government while also continuing to keep it alive. This translated into a further collapse in support, with the party failing even to surpass the 5 percent threshold in the May 2019 European elections and the October 2020 regional elections.

The same can be said of the communist KSČM, which was practically invisible in recent years. Unlike most of the region’s former ruling communist parties, who transformed into neoliberal social democratic forces in the 1990s, the KSČM did not reform and kept a hard line regarding the past: no excuses, no regrets. It was helped by the fact that the Social Democrats had never accepted the Communist takeover of 1948 and came back from exile in 1989 without the stain of complicity.

So, while the Social Democrats became part of the system in the 1990s, steering the country toward NATO and the EU, the Communists sharply criticized the painful socioeconomic transformation, the dodgy privatizations, and the corruption proliferating in the two-party system of the 1990s and 2000s. Becoming more than the party of Stalinist old-timers, it attracted a lot of the protest vote from working-class voters from poorer regions, gaining more than 18 percent in 2002 and close to 15 percent in 2013. When it became a parliamentary support for Babiš’s government, though, it was unable to show tangible results — and lost its status as a protest party.

Culture Wars and Cash Promises

In addition to seeing Babiš skillfully maneuver to take credit for the rise in living standards in his time as finance minister, the ČSSD was, by summer 2015, already entangled in the new culture wars unleashed by the refugee crisis in Europe. While Babiš and his ANO movement shifted towards a clear “no” to welcoming refugees as public opinion increasingly sided with the anti-refugee camp, the ČSSD was torn between the old-school conservative camp and its more modern liberal wing. In the end, it turned away both proponents and opponents of a welcoming policy. The same can be said on other topics, such as relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia or same-sex marriage, on which the party has a wide range of contradictory views. While many voters fled to Babiš, others went to the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (Svoboda a přímá demokracie, SPD) party, a growing force that now has several former ČSSD deputies as its top candidates.

Moreover, as Babiš became increasingly entangled in his own scandals linked with his agrochemicals business and his media empire, the political scene started revolving around his own person, with a ferociously anti-Babiš liberal opposition facing the oligarch. Elections turned into referenda on Babiš, making his allies like the ČSSD (and later the KSČM) completely irrelevant. “Those who love Babiš, vote for ANO. And those who don’t like him have no reason to vote for us, since we keep him in power,” Social Democratic senator Petr Vícha explained at a party conference.

In the present campaign, the left-wing parties have been unable to distance themselves from the “Babiš question” and to present a clear vision of the kind of leftist policies that it would want to implement. The ČSSD has talked about higher wages, better employee benefits, and longer vacations, but — in addition to lacking credibility after eight disappointing years — it lacks strong flagship policies that could bring voters back. While their campaign is hardly visible, a man like Babiš is not afraid to make bold promises. “20,000 crowns [$900 USD] if you vote for number twenty,” he roared when he launched his campaign, referring to a promised 33 percent hike in pensions if ANO (number twenty on the ballot paper) wins the elections. With pensioners comprising up to 50 percent of those going to vote and representing a sizeable group of ANO voters, Babiš plays the game well.

What Alternative?

While Babiš keeps on winning elections with his populism with a human face, left-wing forces in the Czech Republic are still looking for a way out of their present dead end. At one point, it seemed like the country’s rising Pirate Party might be the new liberal center-left force. But its present campaign has been disappointing, with the party entering a coalition with the center-right Mayors and Independents party and disavowing any hint of leftish socioeconomic policy.

While the Pirates’ coalition was leading in the polls this spring, Babiš, the far right, and even the center right attacked them as “leftist extremists” who want to welcome migrants and submit to the EU’s “green madness.” Instead of weathering the storm by standing up for their beliefs (which could broadly be described as center-left), the Pirates did everything they could to shake off the attacks. In the end, they watered down their message, losing both centrist electors frightened by the Red Scare and left-wing electors disgusted by their lack of principles.

In the ČSSD, young blood has tried to save the party from the predicted catastrophe by turning toward a more radical strategy. The current minister for work and social affairs, Jana Maláčová, has teamed up with former head of the Green Party Matěj Stropnický to head the electoral list in Prague, and they caused an uproar among the neoliberals when they went into a factory to check for potential breaches in working conditions, widely broadcasting their visit on social media. This shock action was a good marketing move, and Stropnický has been a vocal proponent of leftist politics without liberalism, but it remains to be seen if voters will find the move convincing enough — after eight years of collaboration with an exploitative oligarch and relative inaction on working conditions by the ČSSD.

For the Czech left, the disintegration of the existing parties may demand rebuilding from the ground up. Babiš’s victory this weekend is almost guaranteed, despite the recent Pandora Papers revelations linking him to offshore money laundering. Yet it is not so likely that the oligarch will be able to build a functioning coalition. If the elections do mark his downfall and the Left is kicked out of Parliament, a new center-right/neoliberal coalition would threaten a slew of post-pandemic austerity measures. The organized opposition to such moves will need to build a solid commitment to working-class Czechs’ interests, if the Left is to enjoy a second life.