The Czech Trump's Defeat Doesn't Mean We Should Pop the Cork

It's premature to declare that the tide has turned on Central European populists

Ever heard the story of a billionaire-turned-populist-politician donning a signature red hat who was propelled to the highest executive office in the nation and then voted out after his first term? The four years were marked with scandals—including by his failure to properly divest himself from his company and by using his political clout to stall the investigation of his finances.

Meet Andrej Babiš, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, nicknamed the “Czech Trump,” who just lost his election earlier in October. But does his defeat portend the end of the populist fever that has afflicted Central Europe in the past decade, as The New York Times’ reporting appears to suggest?

Not quite. Several facts make the Czech situation quite distinct from the reality of neighboring countries such as Hungary and Poland. For one, Babiš’ style of populism has been noticeably different from that of Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland. Secondly, the Czech political environment features several institutional obstacles to the concentration of power in the hands of one political party.

The fifth wealthiest Czech on the Forbes.com list of billionaires, worth $3.5 billion, Babiš entered Czech politics a decade ago as the leader of the Alliance of Dissatisfied Citizens (ANO), a catch-all party railing against the corruption and incompetence of the country’s post-1989 elites. But Babiš was always more technocratic rather than nationalist in his outlook. He quickly became finance minister in a coalition government led by the Social Democrats (ČSSD), and in 2017 he was appointed prime minister in a government in which the Social Democrats were relegated to a junior coalition partner.

Babiš’ arrival in power at a time of dramatic de-democratization in Poland and Hungary was greeted with understandable concerns. His appointment in December 2017, coincided in Hungary with a vicious government campaign against George Soros, which led to the adoption of draconian rules on the operation of foreign funded non-governmental institutions in that country. Meanwhile in Poland, the government was busy defanging its independent courts.

Yet, for all his Trump-like bombast, Babiš was not the next Orbán or Kaczyński, both of whose visceral grievance-driven nationalism he never shared. In fact, the Czech sense of nationhood and nationalist attitudes have traditionally drawn on far more benign and ultimately liberal sources compared to the other Central and Eastern European countries. It is a telling indication of the relative weakness of ethnocentric, blood-and-soil nationalism in the Czech context that Babiš himself was born to Slovak parents and speaks in a heavily inflected Czech. Even more strikingly, the leader of the most radical anti-immigration party in the Czech lower house, Tomio Okamura, was born in Tokyo to a Japanese father and a Czech mother.

More importantly, the Czech Republic has also been far better positioned to withstand attempts at authoritarian rule. It features a reasonably powerful upper chamber and an assertive Constitutional Court. This court between 1998 and 2002 stopped the two largest parties from entrenching themselves in power by forging an “opposition pact.” This arrangement attempted to marginalize smaller parties and avoid the need to build government coalitions. Also, the Czech Republic’s proportional representation system—in contrast to Hungary’s winner-takes-all—helped thwart Babiš by making it harder for his party to gain absolute control over the legislature. Orbán, on the other hand, has enjoyed such control for three terms, which has allowed him to rewrite Hungary’s constitution and electoral laws to give Fidesz, his party, a systematic advantage.

That is not to say that Babiš’ prime ministership was unproblematic. The billionaire-populist’s massive conflicts of interest were a headache for the Czech prosecutors who were arguably under political pressure from him to slow-walk any criminal proceedings, particularly over a case of EU subsidy fraud at Babiš’ signature outdoor-centric resort, The Stork’s Nest. A week before the election, the Pandora Papers, the massive document leak exposing secret off-shore accounts of dozens of global leaders and celebrities, revealed that Babiš had used a network of shell companies to purchase real estate on the French Riviera, hidden from any public disclosures. Babiš’ government also flailed in the face of the pandemic – with four different health ministers in 18 months and one of the highest death rates in the world in the early months of 2021.

That was fatal for Babiš’ version of populism that was based on brandishing not his nationalistic fervor but his managerial and technocratic acumen (the prime minister is fond of talking about running the government like a business). To distract from his failure at governing, he did make a nativist and anti-immigration turn in the final stretch of his campaign, even bringing Viktor Orbán to the campaign trail 10 days before the election.

Yet the Hail Mary pass did not work. For one, immigration and Brussels-bashing lacks the resonance it had only a few years ago. Unlike in, say, 2016 the continent does not face an acute refugee crisis. And even if the EU continues to jostle with national capitals, some of the conflicts seem to have been attenuated by the bloc’s financial largesse in the wake of the pandemic.

The other factor leading to his party’s defeat was that competition for the nativist vote in the Czech Republic has been intense, with several new parties splitting the support of the aggrieved, anti-immigration electorate. One contributing factor in the election outcome was the failure of nationalist parties such as (Oath/Přísaha and Tricolor/Trikolora) and the Communist Party (KSČM) to garner the 5 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. Had the right- and left-wing extremist fringes performed better, Babiš might have been able to cobble a ruling coalition.

And even as the extremists were fragmented, the anti-Babiš coalition internalized the most important law of politics: stay unified. Voters eager to get Babiš out of power could choose between two blocs of parties committed to cooperating after the election and avoiding friendly fire. The first bloc was led by the progressive, left-of-center Pirates. Another one united moderate center-right parties (Together/Spolu).

For Babiš’ campaign, Pirates were an easy target. Following months of targeted messaging about open borders, wokeness, and “gender ideology,” Pirates that had once appeared poised to lead the post-Babiš coalition, were severely weakened and only four of their candidates entered parliament. Yet, the result of this monomania was not ANO’s victory but rather a migration of moderate voters toward the center-right Together, which surprisingly outperformed Babiš’ own party.

The central lesson of Babiš’ failed tenure as prime minister is that when populist figures are given a chance to govern, they have to translate their populist rhetoric into effective governance. If the institutions are strong enough to prevent them from intimidating the opposition and eroding the independence of media, public administration, and courts, then they have to prove themselves to the voters, just like any other candidate, and that gets tricky.

That is not the case in Hungary or Poland.

The Hungarian opposition, gearing up for the 2022 election, has certainly taken note of the need for moderation and and an ecumenical coalition to defeat Orbán’s Fidesz. Its choice of Péter Márki-Zay, a local politician, a devout Catholic and probably the most conservative figure on offer, as their joint candidate for prime minister echoes the rise to prominence of Petr Fiala, the leader of Together and the Czech Republic’s presumptive prime minister—a soft-spoken ex-professor of politics, prone to casually quoting Michael Oakeshott and Roger Scruton.

However, defeating Fidesz is a far taller order because Orbán has managed to subvert many institutional checks. So if he loses next year that will be far more meaningful from the standpoint of turning the tide on populism. Ditto for Kaczyński in 2023.

It is possible, indeed likely, that the smooth transfer of power in Prague has been facilitated by the fact that Babiš’ eyes are already on the next prize: the presidency. The current president is seriously ill, which might create an opening for Babiš before the 2023 election, when a new president would normally be ushered. Although this is largely a ceremonial post, it would shield him from criminal prosecution and enable him to play his role of a popular tribune railing against elites, while not bearing any actual responsibility for governing.

As the new coalition deals with the fallout from Babiš’ era-measures by adopting unpopular reforms such as austerity and energy price hikes, the Trump-like red hat and the big mouth of the departing prime minister might retain a lot of attraction. As president, Babiš’ would continue to offend Prague’s sophisticated classes and would likely make missteps, particularly on the international scene—but his presidency would likely mean the end of his political party and a waning of his influence on government. And if that is the worst-case scenario, then the Czech democracy seems to be in a pretty good shape.

May Hungary and Poland be so lucky!

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

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Photo Credit: Jiří Sedláček, Wikipedia Commons

A guest post by
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a contributing editor at the American Purpose, and a research associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.