Consolidation Among Opposition Raises Political Heat For Babiš
Opinion polls released last week showed ANO trailing for the first time in almost four years, following recent consolidation among opposition parties into two new alliances to fight the general election in October. Despite criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Babiš’s party is still in a strong position, but his opponents are more of a threat now than at any point since he became Prime Minister. Photo Credit: Vlada.cz.
Czech Rep., Feb 24 (BD) – Last week, a voting intention poll conducted by Czech pollster Kantar for Česká televize showed Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s ANO trailing in the polls for the first time since June 2017. Babiš’s party has enjoyed a prolonged period of dominance in Czech politics during that time; the general election in October 2017 saw ANO take 29.6% of the vote, well over twice as much as their closest challengers. The Social Democratic Party (ČSSD), previously rivalling ANO in the polls as they governed together in coalition, went into freefall ahead of the election, losing almost two thirds of its support to finish 6th. Last week’s poll reflects a significant recent change in strategy by the divided opposition parties that could have seismic consequences for the upcoming elections in October this year.
Czech politics has long been characterised by fragmentation and volatility, with new parties appearing regularly, and even the most established parties experiencing periodic wipeouts at the hands of voters. The last election only underlined this trend, with a record nine parties clearing the 5% threshold necessary for representation in the Chamber of Deputies (there are now 11 parties represented due to further splintering during the parliamentary term). Five of those parties scored less than 10% of the vote, leaving them with only a handful of MPs each and the dismissive categorisation as “5% parties”.
Unsurprisingly, a parliament composed of so many small parties, ranging from the hard-left Communists to the far-right SPD via a colourful array of conservatives, liberals, regionalists and pirates, has often struggled to provide a coherent opposition to Babiš. The Prime Minister’s ANO movement has successfully positioned itself in the centre of the political spectrum with a non-ideological populism-lite, drawing the support of older, rural voters, ex-communists, and those disillusioned with other parties from across the spectrum, establishing a seemingly unassailable command over the political landscape.
All this may be in the process of changing. Following regional elections in October, several of the parties in the fragmented opposition entered into negotiations to form electoral alliances for the general election in October, resulting in two new blocs that may threaten ANO’s dominance.
The first to launch, on October 27th last year, was SPOLU (“Together”), a centre-right coalition of the conservative Civic Democratic Party (ODS), liberal-conservative TOP 09, and the Christian Democratic Union/Czechoslovak People’s Party (KDU-ČSL), widely known in Czech as lidovci. TOP 09 leader Markéta Adamová describes the party as a “liberal conservative force which has tradition at its heart, but a modern view of the world.”
The second alliance, “Pirates and Mayors”, is between the Mayors and Independents group (STAN), which calls for decentralisation and localised politics, and the Czech Pirate Party. This alliance was provisionally agreed in December and ratified by Pirate Party members in an internal referendum in January.
The threat these alliances pose to ANO has swiftly become clear in opinion polls, with both now consistently polling over 20%, within a few percentage points of ANO, and Pirates and Mayors even taking the lead in last week’s poll. Their prospects have been boosted by a Constitutional Court ruling on February 3rd that annulled several parts of Czech electoral law, including the high electoral thresholds for multi-party alliances, and other features which the court said unfairly discriminate against smaller parties. The government must now rewrite these parts of the electoral law before the October election, but as the ANO/ČSSD coalition is ruling as a minority government, it will be bound to take into account the views of at least some of the “5% parties” when doing so.
The elephant in the room, as always, is the ongoing coronavirus crisis. While the government enjoyed widespread approval for its response to the early stages of the pandemic last spring, it has come under growing criticism for both the persistently high number of cases since last autumn, and the economic hardship experienced by many due to the lockdown measures. Public support for the government’s handling of the crisis is now at 40%, down 12 percentage points since November, according to pollster STEM/MARK. The opposition parties have been keen to paint the government as incompetent and out-of-touch, and unwilling to accept suggestions and offers of help.
These frustrations, as well as eyes looking forward to the coming elections, provide the context for the refusal of the Czech parliament on February 11th to permit a further extension to the state of emergency. Opposition parliamentarians expressed the hope that the government would now be forced to collaborate with other parties to deal with the twin health and economic crises engulfing the country, though on these as on many other issues, wide disagreement exists within the opposition. Either way, this manoeuvre will give the two new alliances a further platform to differentiate themselves from the government and from each other in the run-up to the October vote.
It is far too early to start writing the Prime Minister’s political obituary, for many reasons. Firstly, the election is still eight months away, and much can happen in that time, especially during such unpredictable circumstances. Secondly, even if the alliances manage to maintain their current favourable poll numbers, there is the issue of forming a new government; a coalition between the two blocs would include five parties, riven by myriad policy differences and a huge potential for internal squabbling. Finally, the invisible hand behind the scenes is President Miloš Zeman, a close ally of Babiš who will have decisive influence over what happens in the government formation process, and has previously shown himself more than willing to use his position to keep his political opponents away from power.
Nonetheless, the new approach from the opposition has changed the Czech political landscape significantly. Much depends on the country’s experience of the pandemic between now and October, especially the roll-out of the vaccination program. If it goes badly, expect an escalation of the political blame game as the government and opposition try to pin fault on each other; if it goes well, we will see a rush to take credit for the country’s reversal in pandemic fortunes. Either way, opponents of Babiš will now be feeling bolder than they have for several years.