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Andrej Babiš defeated: Is this the end of Czech populism?

The second round of this weekend’s Czech presidential election was a struggle between “democracy, respect for the constitution and a pro-Western orientation against populism, lies and a penchant for Russia,” according to Prime Minister Petr Fiala.

Former military commander-in-chief Piotr Pavel emerged as a clear winner, while ex-populist prime minister Andrei Babish suffered his second defeat from the establishment “elite” in as many years.

In the fall 2021 legislative election, he lost the premiership to Fiala, a former university chancellor — an archetypal position in the establishment — and head of the Civic Democrats (ODS), the main party.

In Pavel, the Czechs are getting a serious and brooding military hero who says he intends to restore dignity to the presidency after a decade of bluntness and the meddling of Miloš Zeman, another populist who is now likely to retire from the political scene.

“Populism is the problem of our time,” Pavel tweeted last June, months before his candidacy was announced.

But analysts aren’t so sure his time in the Czech Republic is over. While Pavel did well at the ballot box, it’s just one battle won, said Filip Kostelka, a professor at the European University Institute.

But “the struggle between the liberal-democratic and populist camps will continue,” he told Euronews.

Babiša wave of populism

Not that Babiš alone was the populist front that swept through the Czech Republic in the 2010s, fueled by public anger towards the European Union in the wake of the 2014 migration crisis and the economic fallout from the global financial crisis.

In 2013, when his fledgling ANO party came second in the general election and Babiš was named First Deputy Prime Minister, the economy grew by 0%. According to the World Bank, a year earlier it fell by 0.8%.

Babiš vowed to fight corruption (ironically for a man who has been plagued by allegations of bribery all his life) and rule differently than the typical Prague “elites”.

“Run the state like a business,” he declared early in his political career. His party ANO, which means “yes” in Czech, is an acronym for “The Action of Disgruntled Citizens”.

By that time, he had built his Agrofert conglomerate into one of the largest Czech companies, and his political career was no doubt helped by his purchases of major newspapers and media outlets.

Balazs Jarabik, a fellow at IWM Vienna for the Future of Europe, once called Babiš “a typical opportunist”. He courted right-wing voters in the 2013 general election. However, it strengthened in the 2017 vote, winning over left-wing supporters from the Social Democratic Party (CSDP) and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM).

Subsequently, both parties crashed in the polls (for the first time in 2021, they failed to win seats in parliament), although formally and informally, respectively, they supported his minority government after 2017.

Babish went for broke?

Babish is used up now? Some optimists argue that his eventual two-punch knockout over the past two years is evidence that populism is having diminishing returns, especially among Czechs, who fear their liberal traditions dating back to the 1920s are under threat.

Czechoslovakia was the last remaining democracy in the east until the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1939.

“Sooner or later, populism will become impossible,” Pavel wrote in December, shortly after announcing his presidential candidacy.

Some intellectuals probably agree with the potential next president of the Czech Republic. Niall Ferguson, a historian, said this month that populism, by its very nature, has a “short half-life.”

“Six years ago, populism was on the rise. He has since hit a rock,” he wrote. in his Bloomberg column.

At least this is the case in some parts of Europe. In the UK, support for Brexit is now at an all-time low, a YouGov poll showed in November, when only 32% of Britons said leaving the European Union was a smart move.

Elsewhere, such as Sweden or Italy, far-right arsonists have seen a meteoric rise in popularity over the past few years, eventually winning elections or becoming kingmakers in 2022. And in Central Europe, some populists are still at the peak of their popularity.

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban remain in poor health; Orban’s ruling Fidesz party even increased its share of parliamentary seats in last year’s general election. Slovakia may soon see the return of its former populist prime minister, Robert Fico, as its current government collapses.

But Babiš “has always been much weaker politically” than Orban and Jarosław Kaczynski, PiS head Lubomir Kopecek, a professor of political science at Masaryk University, told Euronews.

Unlike Slovakia and Hungary, which have unicameral parliaments, the Czech Republic has a strong Senate, an upper house that keeps the Chamber of Deputies in check.

As prime minister from 2017 to 2021, Babiš led a minority government and his party did not control the Senate or the Constitutional Court.

But much depends on luck, according to Kostelka: “The outcome of the last legislative elections could easily have been different.”

If the Social Democratic Party had won just 0.4 percentage points more votes in 2021, it would have entered parliament and could possibly have re-established its minority electoral coalition with ANO Babiš.

Had the tens of thousands of votes gone the other way, Babiš would have been in a better position to put pressure on President Zeman, a fellow traveler, to first invite him to try to form a government.

“Society remains divided”

Analysts say populism is far from over.

The ANO won just over 1,458,000 votes (about 27% of the popular vote) in the 2021 general election, while Babiš won over a third of the vote in the first round of the presidential election earlier this month and 41.67% of the vote in that election. second round of the weekend.

In 2021, the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party (SPD) received around 510,000 votes.

And about a million voters supported the party, which did not win a single seat in parliament. “All these people will be looking for representation; and Babiš is the first natural choice,” Otto Eibl, head of the political science department at Masaryk University, told Euronews.

So the question is whether the populist billionaire will live to see the next general election in 2024. Able thinks so.

Babiš was no doubt encouraged by the Prague court earlier this month. cleared him of the charges subsidy fraud just four days before the first round of the presidential election.

His party is the largest opposition group in parliament, and although Babiš doesn’t appear often in the hall, he may become more attentive if he loses the presidency.

In its latest opinion poll, STEM found that the ANO is the most popular party by a few percentage points, while support for the ruling coalition is waning. In 2021, he lost to two new five-party alliances that formed a bloc that could be called anything but Babiš.

“The current government is definitely not in the best position,” Kopechek said. “He has a relatively low level of confidence and, above all, a huge challenge in the form of a large government deficit or high inflation,”

Indeed, inflation hovered at 15.8% in December, well above the Eurozone average. Prime Minister Fiala promised a balanced budget after years of lavish spending by Babiš, but that has been undermined by the war in Ukraine, inflation and global market problems (the Czech economy could shrink by 0.1% this year, according to OECD estimates). )

“Society is still very divided,” Vladimira Dvorakova, a political scientist at the Czech Technical University in Prague, told Euronews.

Perhaps this is fertile ground for Babiš to wait and try to strike a third blow of power in the 2024 general election.

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