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The Czech election campaign was dominated by populism and emptiness

Daniela Ostrá
political scientist at the Department of Political Science and European Studies at Palacký University in Olomouc

The main topic of the Czech parliamentary elections was the future of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. The main right-wing coalition SPOLU (Together) successfully raised that topic early on, and made it its sole focus for several months.

The Czech Republic has undergone an unprecedented health crisis, which has been responsible for more than 30,000 deaths. Due to the pandemic, the country’s economic situation is also not ideal. And yet, the election campaign was reduced to a fight against PM Babiš and fearmongering about migration and EU powers. 

At the beginning of 2021, the right-wing opposition succeeded in portraying Babiš as incompetent to lead the country in times of crisis. Due to chaotic government regulations and collapsing healthcare, Babiš’ movement fell to second place in opinion polls for the first time since March 2014. The perception of incompetence and incapacity was in direct contrast to the image of a successful manager capable of arranging everything in politics which Babiš had successfully cultivated before. It became one of the few weaknesses of the populist politician. Voters can forgive a lot, but not incompetence. Yet, the issue of a mismanaged pandemic did not become the central theme of the election campaign.

As the epidemic situation improved, and people returned to a normal way of life, it made way for political parties to set a different agenda. In particular, Babiš’ ANO movement – which had been on the defensive during the second wave of the pandemic – regained confidence in spring 2021, setting the tone and content of all political communication in the country. As opinion polls identified ANO’s two biggest competitors – the coalition of the Pirate Party and Mayors and Independents; and SPOLU, formed by the right-wing, former government parties ODS, KDU-ČSL and TOP09 – Babiš team set out a clear strategy, which was to portray right-wing opposition parties as the only real threat to the country.

The closer to the election came, the more aggressive and populist the ANO movement became. Babiš once again managed to position himself as the sole fighter for Czech interests and a victim of the intrigues of EU representatives, helped by the domestic opposition. He portrayed all problems related to his conflict of interest and the threat of drawing from European funds as an attack on the interests of the Czech Republic. He followed that strategy very carefully, aware of the characteristics of the target groups he needed to appeal to.

The power of Babiš’ ability to set the agenda of the public debate was demonstrated by one of his speeches in the Chamber of Deputies in July, which prompted an enormous number of reactions from politicians and the media. He was able to include all the issues that had a strong mobilising potential for his voters. He warned against the Pirate Party, which, according to him, supported migration. He warned against green policies that would threaten Czech industry and jobs. He also sharply opposed the EU institutions that allegedly threatened Czech sovereignty. In one speech, he managed to set the campaign agenda for months to come. His campaign could be described as populist and nationalist, but also very professionally executed.

The right-wing competition failed to hold their own and too often lapsed into hysterical reactions to Babiš. The Pirates and Mayors’ campaign did not properly define the target groups and therefore the range of topics to communicate. The SPOLU coalition, in turn, reduced the campaign to moral appeals (‘so we wouldn’t have to be ashamed of our Prime Minister’), offering a ‘change’ and persistently criticising Babiš. Although they described themselves as fiscally responsible and criticised the country’s debt burden, their vague manifesto did not suggest ways to increase the revenues of the state budget. The key election promise of both opposition coalitions was an abstract vision of a ‘change’ and a future without Babiš. The content of the election programme was side-lined. 

The topics dominating the elections echoed the declining relevance of the conflict between the left and the right, the beginnings of which could be traced back to 2013 when Babiš’ movement succeeded for the first time to enter the Chamber of Deputies. The move away from the left-right divide significantly hampered the position of traditional left-wing parties, the Social Democrats and the Communist Party, unable to compete with the new, often populist political subjects on the issues of the efficient state and the fight against corruption. The Social Democrats attempted to revive the left-right divide in this year’s campaign, but, as a party close to the electoral threshold to the Chamber of Deputies, they did not have sufficient power to shift the public debate. Moreover, as an establishment party that had been for two terms in the government with Babiš, they could not offer a change and suffered from a lack of credibility of their leaders.

Thus, the fundamental conflict in the elections was not over new economic and social policies after the pandemic (right versus left), but between the vision of a liberal-conservative democracy and an oligarchic-authoritarian populism. In that context, the traditional parties that had emerged from, and had been for a long time operating within the left-right divide, were not able to find their credible voice and position on the political scene. 

Photo credits: btwcapture/Shutterstock

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