On October 20 and 21, Czech voters headed to the polls to choose the members of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament. This ninth lower-house election since the fall of Communism in 1989 confirmed some of the gloomy forecasts for liberal democracy. The Czech Republic is another country in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) that has succumbed to populist appeals. Yet it's not quite as clearcut as in some other CEE countries, giving us some grounds for optimism.
Over the past four years, the country was ruled by a coalition of three parties. A classic social democratic party (CSSD) held the majority of cabinet seats including the prime minister's office. Its partners were the centrist Christian Democrats (KDU-CSL) and Action of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO), a new Berlusconi-style business party founded in 2011 by the second-richest Czech, Slovak-born Andrej Babis. (1) Running on a populist and anticorruption platform, ANO unexpectedly came second in the 2013 legislative election.
Between 2013 and 2017, the ruling coalition benefited from an extremely favourable economic conjuncture, which allowed it to fulfil many of its election pledges and, in 2016, to end the year with a budgetary surplus, the first since 1995. The GDP growth rate was among the highest in the European Union and unemployment reached a record low. Yet, in the 2017 legislative election (table 1), the leading Social Democrats were decimated: their vote share declined by 13 percentage points and they lost 35 seats in the 200-member Chamber of Deputies. The Christian Democrats also lost ground (one percentage point and four seats). In contrast, ANO clearly won the election, with an increase in vote share of 11 percentage points and 31 seats more than in 2013. At the same time, several new parties, including the far-right SPD, achieved respectable results. In all, parties that had not been in the lower house prior to 2013 won 65 per cent of the seats in 2017.
What can explain this paradoxical outcome in times of economic prosperity, and what are its implications for Czech democracy and European politics?
Causes of the electoral earthquake
A number of factors contributed to the failure of the Social Democrats, including a relatively weak and contested leader in Bohuslav Sobotka. Perhaps the most important factor, however, was that ANO claimed responsibility for all of the government's achievements. Its leader, who owns a giant conglomerate consisting of hundreds of companies, boasted about applying his business skills in his position as Minister of Finance. (2) The good performance of the economy lent credibility to Babis's populist claims that the state should be run as a business enterprise and that the traditional "corrupt" political parties only "blather" instead of working...