Billionaires, Communists, corruption: Seven-way split stymies Czech election

A surprisingly strong showing by a billionaire-backed populist party in this weekend's elections is just one of the ingredients placing the Czech Republic's politics in limbo.

Petr David Josek/AP
Czech billionaire and leader of the ANO political movement Andrej Babis (l.) is congratulated on the election result by circus owner Jaromir Joo (c.) and his baby tiger named Fred, after most of the votes were counted in early general elections in Prague, Czech Republic, on Saturday.

If there's one thing to be learned from the Czech Republic's elections, it's that the country's political instability shows no sign of abating.

A strong showing by a billionaire-backed anti-establishment party in this weekend's elections has further shaken already unstable ground, as seven parties reached parliament in a vote expressing public anger at the political status quo.

Years of political scandals – including a major sex, spying, and graft affair that brought down a government earlier this year – have led to deep disillusionment with the Czech political class. Voter turnout in this election was the lowest in more than a decade and the second lowest since 1989. Many who did vote vented frustrations by supporting hastily formed populist parties.

The results leave no clear road to a stable government and did little to improve the mood. A Czech television poll found that 80 percent of people believe a state of political crisis will continue.

Populist upheaval

According to the Czech Statistical Office, the Social Democrats were the ostensible winners with 20.5 percent of the vote, but this proved a huge disappointment as the party had hoped to control 70 of the Chamber of Deputies' 200 seats. They now hold just 50.

If there was a real winner it was ANO ("yes" in Czech), a loose coalition campaigning on a vague anti-corruption platform that is backed by the country's second richest man, Andrej Babiš. Finishing second with 18.7 percent, the biggest unknown is how this populist surge will translate into parliamentary policy.

"Babiš runs a movement which is not transparent and totally depends on him." says Jiří Pehe, a political analyst and onetime adviser to Václav Havel, the late dissident playwright who became the country's first post-communist president. "It doesn't really matter if he is an angel or a devil."

Regardless, Babiš comes with what appears some messy baggage. Earlier this year he bought two of the country's largest daily newspapers, which combined with his political ambitions lead some to nickname him the "Czech Berlusconi," a reference to the flamboyant Italian media tycoon, Silvio Belusconi. Meanwhile, in the weeks running up to the election, two separate archived documents surfaced alleging Babiš was initially a collaborator and then an agent for the communist-era secret police, the StB, in the 1980s. He has denied the allegations.

"I had no idea about the fact they had the file about me," he said in an interview before the election. "I have never signed any kind of cooperation, so I brought a lawsuit."

ANO voters were undeterred, and indeed support surpassed pre-election forecasts. This may be the clearest sign yet that for many voters the communist-era really is a thing of the past.

The Communists themselves finished third with 14.9 percent of the vote. Unlike parties in other post-communist states, the Czech communists remain fully constituted in their old form. Elsewhere parties were dissolved and reformed, often under different names and with different platforms. The Czech party still has a Stalinist wing.

At the same time, the Communists have shown administrative skills in several local and regional governments in recent years, making it a viable option for some. The Social Democrats had hoped to form a minority government, backed by Communist votes, but neither party performed to expectations.

In other results, the right-of-center TOP 09 and Civic Democrats took 12.0 percent and 7.7 percent respectively. Usvít (Dawn), a party Mr. Pehe termed "proto-fascist," took 6.9 percent and the Christian Democrats 6.8 percent.

'Rather gloomy'

The Civic Democrats' poor showing highlights the party's reversal of fortunes. They had been the country's dominant center-right party for decades, but are still reeling from a corruption scandal that brought down Prime Minister Petr Nečas in June and spurred the weekend's elections.

In the scandal, Jana Nagyová, Nečas' chief of staff and then-lover, allegedly used military intelligence to spy on Nečas' wife. Alongside this came allegations of bribery and kickbacks. After divorcing his wife, Nečas married Nagyová in September, meaning that they cannot be forced to testify against one another in court. Nagyová, meanwhile, faces criminal charges for abuse of power. Nečas has not been charged, though he is still under investigation.

Such scandals, and repeated allegations of graft involving high-level politicians, have given rise to this sour public mood and the prevailing feeling that the rich and politically connected are above the law. Until last year, Czech parliamentarians were guaranteed immunity from criminal prosecution not only while in office, but for life.

In terms of forming a government, the only viable way forward seems a power sharing agreement involving the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and ANO. But this is nobody's preference and the Social Democrats are in turmoil, with many in the party calling for the resignation of Bohsulav Sobotka, the  chairman who was touted the likely prime minister.

"Most of the scenarios are rather gloomy," Pehe says.

Prior to the election, ANO and Social Democrats had foresworn cooperation with one another, and indeed ANO had insisted it wished to remain in opposition. The party's strong showing, however, has forced it to quickly come to grips with expectations that it help make post-election solutions.

"This party must be given a chance, let's say a hundred days of tolerance, to translate dissatisfaction into concrete bills," President Milos Zeman said of ANO during a post-election television interview.

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