The incumbent Czech President Miloš Zeman will likely win the first round of presidential elections on January 12 and 13. Zeman, an ally of the newly elected Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, has been dubbed the “troll president,” regularly airs pro-Russian views, and his spokesperson has likened the EU to the Third Reich. Populists of various kinds control the top three jobs in the country, including the speaker of the parliament. Despite all this, rumors of the death of democracy in Prague are greatly premature, nor is the Czech Republic likely to follow Poland’s example of confronting the European Commission.

Balázs Jarábik
Jarábik was a nonresident scholar focusing on Eastern and Central Europe with particular focus on Ukraine.
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On paper, the Czech Republic is an unlikely candidate to have succumbed to the populist bug. Unemployment, at 2.9 percent in July 2017, is the lowest in the EU, and the country’s GDP is growing handsomely. But our research1 shows that these figures obscure a deeper unhappiness of two kinds.

First, even though Central European economies, on the whole, have converged to some extent with those of the eurozone, wages are still one-third of that in Germany. The reasons have to do with the structure of the economy. As much as 62 percent of the Czech GDP is generated by foreign owned companies. The inflow of western capital has provided a welcome boost for Europe’s post-communist countries, but at a price. Multinationals set low prices for intermediary products that Czech factories produce, thus suppressing wages while boosting profit margins. The rewards of convergence with the West have thus gone disproportionately to the mostly Western owners of capital.

Second, the Czechs, like many other Europeans, have come to hold a dim view of the basic competences of their governing elites. The public hold them responsible for not addressing wage inequalities or failing to repair dilapidated highways. Traditional parties, largely viewed as having morphed into a “cartel of insiders,” were replaced by Andrej Babiš in 2017 who promises to “manage the state better.”

Competence issues are also feeding the latent Euroskepticism of the new Czech elites. The EU is viewed as having mishandled the response to the mass inflow of migrants and refugees, or previously the eurozone crisis. This makes Czech Euroskepticism different from sentiments in Poland and Hungary, whose governments see themselves as being in a culture clash with EU institutions. As Czech academic Jiří Pehe wrote, both pro-EU and anti-EU sentiments in the country are shallow, as majority of the people care little about “Brussels.”

Populists across Europe have benefited from the perception that the “old” elites have been too close to the business and financial worlds and corrupted by them. The picture in the Czech Republic is more complicated. While the public perception of corruption remains high (at 84 percent, down from 95 percent in 2013), the number of people who report having a personal experience with corruption is dramatically lower at 7 percent. This raises the possibility that anti-corruption campaigns may have created alarmist perceptions that do not match reality.

At the same time, steps taken to combat corruption turn out to be a double-edged sword: the burdens they impose on business (mainly in the form of additional regulation) are easily absorbed by the largest companies, which are also the ones most likely to profit from corruption. Smaller and medium sized companies, while less likely to engage in corruption, pay a relatively high price for compliance. The public view of corruption seems to be changing under the weight of these factors. This helps explain why Babiš—himself a target of an EU fraud investigation—can nevertheless become the standard-bearer for the discontent. The respondents to our survey consistently ranked “elite incompetence” above corruption on their list of concerns.

Rather than being termed as “authoritarian” or “populist,” Babiš can be best described as the “quintessential opportunist.” In 2013, he courted disappointed right-leaning voters, while in 2017 he drew support from social democrats and communists. His party, ANO, is becoming a “common denominator” protest party: an acceptable electoral choice for a sizable plurality of voters that are dissatisfied with the old elites. Given the fragmentation of the political scene, plurality is sufficient to dominate government formation.

Neither Babiš’s ideology—which is difficult to pin down, other than being pro-business and transactional—nor his flexible program seem to pose a direct threat to liberal democracy in the Czech Republic or to EU values. Domestically, formal and informal checks and balances (political pluralism; an electoral system ensuring regional representation; strong opposition in parliament and the Senate—where ANO is weak; depoliticization of the state; overall emancipation of law enforcement; as well as strong business and media competition) are capable of limiting any attempt of state capture. President Zeman, who has found a kin disruptor in Prime Minister Babiš, may be the favorite to win the first round of elections, but most polls show him losing in the second round—likely to a moderate former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences (and, notably, a newcomer to politics) Jiří Drahoš.

Arguably, the main domestic risk stemming from Babiš’s political role is the oligarchization of politics. Another danger would be Babiš’s attempt to try to “solve” his legal problems by abusing his power. These are real worries, but are not on par with the attempts of the Polish and Hungarian governments to dominate the state and fill it with new content.

Czech populism is not an aberration from the prevailing EU trends; in many ways it fits firmly into the broader European mainstream. The economic and migration crises have stained the reputation of traditional parties and paved the way, in Francis Fukuyama’s words, for those “who can break through the miasma of normal politics and achieve results.” The right response from other European countries and the EU institutions would be to not look for cultural differences between Europe’s West and its Center, but to work hard on improving the response to the challenges posed by migration and the economy.

Peter Učeň is a political scientist specializing in the development of Central European political parties.

1This article was adapted from a longer study for the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE) carried out between July-October 2017. It was based on dozens of interviews with the Czech politicians, journalists, scholars, anticorruption activists, and business representatives.